Dalat, 18-21 February
18.02.2009 - 21.02.2009 25 °C
Hidden amongst an undulating terrain of lush forested hills unrolls the mountainous village of Dalat before us. Originally a hilltop retreat for the French elite on their days off from slick Saigon politics, it has allegedly often been likened to the Alps in springtime - or so the guidebook informs us. But today its claims are not entirely unfound we find. This town, with its distinct chateau-like villas, cool breezy climate and laid back attitude, has a real apres-ski feel to it.
So we decide to do what the French did best before us, and kick up our feet for a few days. This is most definitely helped by our somewhat unprecedented, USD $20/night, splurge on accommodation. Residing at the 'Dreams hotel' we enjoy super friendly locals, sumptuous buffets, unlimited online time and, the pinnacle of all, a roof top steam, sauna and jacuzzi. They are right, dreams are made of this!
An enormous improvement on our room in Saigon which, by our last few days stay, had turned into its own little uncontrollable sauna with humidity rising well beyond 100% (or so it felt anyway). Our room is decked out with all the perks: a snuggly bed, a well-stocked minibar at street prices, cable tv, hot water (can't remember when we had our last hot shower) and even some fresh roses - it's luxuriously good! Heading straight for a sauna session we sweat, steam, sink, and sweat some more while we overlook the hubbub of activity that unfurls in the city below. Our bathroom has it own shower capsule where an array of hot strong water jets massage your backs - this place is so space age!
We head off to explore the surroundings and find for lunch up a winding alleyway; the 'Peace cafe'. Packed out by backpackers its not quite the local experience we had in mind. The tofu burgers were nice enough but the red Dalat wine, with its fruity bouquet definitely begged for more. So we go in search of the street markets. Unfortunately, closed for the night we only find a small bottle store catering to the few hardy souls out on the streets - 9pm, this place goes to bed early. Never the less, the 40,000 dong (US $2.5) red dalat wine was worth braving the night for.
Waking up to the breakfast feast that awaits us; we find a welcoming family table full of fruit platters with mango, papaya and passionfruit, omelettes, cream cheese, bacon, baguettes and a brew of vietnamese coffee, as well as the prized unusual condiments marmite, vegemite, peanut butter and dalat strawberry jam. Outside, motodrivers hover the streets seeking custom, mumbling something about 'easy riders' in broken english. Only later do we find out that it concerns a collective of motorbike clowns that drag you on the back of their bike and whisk you away to far, not so off the beaten track, destinations in the Central Highlands. We shrug our shoulders; at USD $65 a day they must surely only carry royalty? Instead we make our own easy rider adventure, pulling out one of the bikes and scaling the numerous torturous hills that dot the city landscape. From the Dalat cathedral a la gingerbread style, built just before the second world war by french christian missionaries (or more accurately the slaves they 'employed'), up to the hills with their capturing views that overlook the city that lies beyond in the valley.
We take the cable car for more grand views of the Quang Tri basin. Set amongst generous forests of pine trees, we discover chinese style pagoda's with peaceful wind chimes and monks wandering the grounds.
A gathering of monks follows. Our curiosity gets the better of us, and we join the procession to a restricted area where a little pavillion resides that overlooks the lake. An elder, much revered, vietnamese monk passes on his teachings to a new generation before he retires - all in all quite a humbling experience. One of the younger monks gives us some sort of luck charm.
We still haven't figured out its purpose but being a gift we can't part with it either. Back in town we cycle back through the cobble stoned alleyways sequestered by locals stopping in for a 15,000 dong street feed. No english here, so some finger pointing ensues before we get served a sort of steaming fresh pho (noodle soup) infused red with chillies, yellow rice noodles, a big pork steak, veggies and leafy aromatic herbs which give it that fresh twang - simply delicious!
One more day of buffets where we manage to peel ourselves out of the sauna to visit the Domaine de Marie Convent, also constructed before the war and once home to about 300 nuns. Though we don't encounter much of this action now; a quiet peaceful courtyard with several greenhouses bask in the hot noon sun.
The remaining nuns support themselves selling ginger candy and fresh orchard fruit, to support the orphanage with disabled children. So far, our encounters with this colony of old leaves us wondering where the french penchant for gingerbread comes from. Chocolate fish for who can tell us. Anyhows, we donate some $ for the good cause and stock up on fresh made strawberry jam - laced with whole strawberries it's so syrupy it won't leave its serving spoon. This stuff is prime and must go well with our baguettes!
Ho Chi Minh City, 14th - 18th February
14.02.2009 - 18.02.2009 31 °C
'Saigon, what a shit hole'. Martin Sheen's famous first words from the acclaimed Apocalypse Now when he woke up in the Rex hotel. On the back of our xe oms, with dodgy helmets and traffic blurring past, breezing through the city towards District 1, we are about to find out. The centre of Ho Chi Minh metropolis, Pham Ngu Lao; a bustling city block of crazy souvenir shops, backpacker cafe's and streetside vendors it's not that bad. With our packs, it doesn't take long before we get picked out from the crowds and steered towards one of the many identical cookie cutter hotels that line the streets. $7 and six floors higher we are now the proud temporary residents of a room that has everything wrong with it; with paint flaking of the ceiling, a toilet that won't flush, a bathroom that won't drain, a door that is broken, and a tv that skips continually... it is a little rough.
Reruns of Titanic on HBO (the movie channel), sure enough it's Valentine's Day. How could we miss it? Is it the savvy vietnamese ladies plugging their roses and bottles of red wine at us for inflated prices, or the throngs of affectionate vietnamese teenage couples walking the pavement hand in hand. Very weird, very coy and totally out of the blue as any public display of affection is usually unheard of, if not frowned upon by elder generations. All fine with us and a good excuse to stay clear of noodles for a night (we've been noodling for a while now) and splash out on dinner. 'Splashing out' in this context meaning spending no more than the astronomical amount of about USD $10 on the fanciest meal at one of the poshest restaurants in town. Our venue of choice 'Milwaukee Bar & Grill' is very much a western affair, sadly like most other places in this area, but the atmosphere is nice and the christmas lights overall add to the ambience.
If perhaps we would like an exquisite US $25 bottle of Hardy's wine with our dinner? Mmm, perhaps not tonight. After all, back home we never bothered with this off the shelf $5 supermarket wine either so why should we now? A 1 litre jug of fresh guava juice works just fine. The menu is extensive and even NZ sirloin steak makes the cut, unfortunately with western price tags. Never mind, the Vietnamese steak comes a good second and so does the chicken cordon bleu - absolutely delectable, served on huge platters, with tiny portions. It is nice to look at though. We feel compelled to polish off our first night with chocolate brownie cake, oreo's and cheese pringles, washed down with a few Saigon beers.
Time to go walkabouts. Most of the stuff we want to see in Saigon city central is only a stone's throw away so off we go. Starting with the Ben Thanh market - a claustrophobic indoor sprawl of a market, filled with the all-time classic 'good morning' vietnam shirts, snake wine, gorgeous Ao Dai, dress suits and coffee. Lots of coffee. The superb Ao Dai, a couture trademark of vietnam and as popular as Ho Chi Minh himself, we see these elegant silk garments everywhere, but it is the girls in school uniforms that steal the show everytime.
With a refreshing and nicely chopped coconut in hand we find ourselves back before the reunification palace. In front of the same imposing iron wrought gates run down by the communist tanks that misty morning of the 30th April 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and South Vietnam effectively ceased to exist. Somewhat solemnly the palace remains very much as it was that day; spacious open chambers kitted out in that weird psychodelic retro furniture from the sixties and all the perks any becoming president might require in times of need - an old school movie theatre, musty reception areas, and lots of important looking bright red bat phones (they must have been watching the series even back then).
Sure enough it also comes with a casino and a leather seated rooftop bar, and on its terrace a Huey escape helicopter that never saw flight, as well as an all encompassing underground bunker; a maze of concrete tunnels, linked up by an elaborate telecommunications centre and, of course, a presidential war room. Sporting one brown mahogany desk, several more (no doubt) important bat phones and a plethora of topographical maps it just breathes testosterone. But sadly no all decisive red button - how disappointing!
Intriguingly, they still use this forlorn palace for offical receptions and the like. Perhaps it is the grandeur which we most definately still feel, standing on its fourth floor balcony, looking out over its enormous courtyard past the gates into Lu Duan Boulevard; the very same spot the victorious north vietnamese unfurled their flag from, and vietnam became one once again (hence the name reunification palace).
Just around the corner, in the midst of traffic chaos, we find the neo-romanesque Notre Dame cathedral. A miniature gingerbread version of the real thing in Paris. It's aesthetically pleasant enough but nothing to drop your pants about. Its stained glass windows got blasted out during world war II which makes it a bit unique. Anyhows, it is not the first we've seen here and, knowing the French, probably won't be our last one. Luck is on our side though, mass is about to start so we slip in for some hallelujah's. Happy to escape the chaos.
And traffic chaos it is indeed, or as the Saigon city brochure delicately puts it 'somewhat challenging traffic conditions'. With 25 million scooters amongst 75 million vietnamese and no enforced traffic regulations, we suppose you can call it that way. Xe oms are everywhere and everyone has them. Under the constant howl of claxons all the roads, motorways and intersections are absolutely clogged with them, and the pavement provides a viable alternative for most of them. Hence you're never really safe anywhere. Crossing the road requires a leap of faith, confidentally shuffling across at a steady bolt stride, while hordes of scooters swerve around you at full speed. To hesitate is to make you unpredictable and prone to accidents - it is a crazy place. Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur pale in comparison and Alana is not impressed.
Enough of that now, since its close we head to the revolutionary museum, housed in a huge neoclassical building from 1886. From elaborate displays on Saigon to a whole floor dedicated to Vietnam's revolutionary history. Plenty of war artefacts abound; a double bottomed rowing boat (ghe) used to smuggle arms, a copy of the microphone (go figure) Ho Chi Minh used to declare independance from, reprints of monk's Thich Quang Duc famous self immolation in 1963, and many displays on the massive peace demonstrations in Saigon against the Vietnam war. Underground again a network of fortified corridors and concrete bunkers - they must have been 'justifiably' paranoid.
Utterly famished we seek shelter in a nearby shopping mall, the 'Diamond Plaza', where we find what must be the best bakery on the planet 'Tout les Jours'. Divine pizza rounds, croquettes, and cream cheese donuts - all for a whopping NZD $1. We have found our Mecca! Here we also pick up a proper Baby G watch for Alana, to replace the replica we bought in Siem Reap (which much to our consternation still works).
Enough sight seeing for the day. We walk back past the Rex, a classic hotel with kitsch carpet upholstery, musty smells, and plaster animal decorations from the time it accommodated US army officers, back to the Ben Thanh market. Just closed but rearranging for night time action. We have oodles of time so stop by at Trung Nguyen for a No. 8 weasel coffee. Derived from weasel poo on a coffee bean diet it has (not suprisingly) a rather earthly and nutty flavour - not the best brew. Fortunately we don't have to wait too long for the market place to set up. In fact, it takes them exactly 15 minutes to turn an empty street into a full fledgling restaurant scene - time for dinner!
Our last day here we visit Chu Chi - a district of greater Ho Chi Minh and pretty much legendary for the vast tunnel network which was dug out of the damp earth red clay by the vietcong during the Vietnam War. Stretching all the way from the Cambodian border to the outskirts of Saigon, this elaborate 250km underground network was the piece 'd resistance and it was from here that the Tet offensive was launched on the eve of the Vietnamese New Year. Running 3 stories and 20 meters deep in some places it comes with living quarters, field hospitals, improvised ammunition plants, communication centres for the 15.000 soldiers that fought here - impressive!
Crawling on hands and feet through the claustrophobic dark tunnels we're rubbing shoulders with damp clay all the way - no turning back now. The entrance a 30x15cm hole in-the-ground trapdoor camouflaged with dirt and leaves. Our guide, a former South Vietnamese soldier, is quite animated as he shows us around the sites under the cover of a regenerating bamboo forest - one of the few things that will grow here. A myriad of bomb craters still scar the area; the result from years of saturation bombing, napalm and chemical defoliants.
Several commonly boobytraps make a guest âppearance; souvenir trap - a structure with long nonretractable punji stakes which, once you've stepped in it, detaches so you can take it home. Or most feared of all the ladyboy trap - two vertically swivelling platforms with long rusty serrated nails aimed at the chest and groin; effectively desexing the enemy upon impact. Intriguingly, most of these traps were in fact designed to (permanently) incapitate a soldier rather than kill, so precious resources in the field were spent on treatment and evacuation. How's that for pure evil ingenuity!
All roads lead to Rome and ours no different. In our case to an onsite shooting range where you can try your luck at an armament of weapons; AK47 and M16 assault rifles or M60 machinegun - take your pick. At 20.000 dong a bullet (US $1) a sure way to shoot your budget.
Back in town we get dropped of at the infamous war remnants museum. Being infamous the place is literally packed with people making it hard to get into the swing of things (if you can call it that way). Outside the usual array of battle-scarred US tanks, helicopters and anti-aircraft artillery. Inside, a documental display on the (many) atrocities committed against the Vietnamese; the My Lai incident, the notorious tiger cages used to detain charlie POW's on Con Son island among many others.
All quite informative but the experience is watered down by the neverending praise for the bravery and patriotism of those who stood up against the imperialist occupation and their south vietnamese puppet regime (yawn). State propaganda at its best we see many photo shoots of female vietcong (child) soldiers carrying heavy ammunition caches on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Bearing ear to ear smiles, the war must have been a field day.
But it's the exhibitions on the aftermath of agent orange and the lives of war journalists which hit home the most. Whole generations of families with gruesome genetic deformaties aptly illustrate that in war there are no real victors and it is the civilians that lose the battle. Other photos from reporters on the frontlines show soldiers ripped to shreds by incoming mortars rounds, followed by their own visual obituaries from the next fatal mortar round, a few minutes later - an otherworldly experience!
Back home it is time to pack up for our ride to Dalat. Incidentally we find the best and cheapest cafè sua nong and omelette baguettes from a local lady tucked away in an alleyway. Feasting on hot coffee and fresh bread between our packs, we kick ourselves that we find her a few days too late.
Vinh Long, 13-14th February
13.02.2009 - 14.02.2009 28 °C
After the minibus drops us at a random location that is actually not the bus stop (so we learn), we endure a painful 45 minute slog along the noisy bike filled, sun baked streets to get to the waterfront. We then catch a water taxi 1.5 km to a river island orchard to do a homestay. We are greeted with fresh fruit and tea as soon as we arrive, and our hosts then start preparing lunch for us. Great hospitality. A huge feast materializes before us - including fried spring rolls, a whole deep fried fish with rice paper, herbs, noodles, and salad so that we can create our own fresh spring rolls (prior to this we only thought the deepfried variety existed). A fun and messy affair. Our host is a Ho Chi Minh lookalike who brings out a plastic bottle of whiskey for us to shot with our lunch - hard out! We follow up with some beers to toast our newfound happy place and feel very grateful to have left the hectic mainland behind us. Just as we feel we are making progress on our fish, more plates of food arrive - rice, meat, veg... and it's only lunchtime!
Our room at Tam Ho is upstairs and overlooks the river and orchard. We wander around the tropical orchard where such exotic fruits as jackfruit, longans, starfruit, tamarind, and many others all grow in abundance. We now have the rest of the afternoon to lounge in the hammock among the bamboo (complete with small snake), and listen to the cultural performance put on by the host family.
We dine in an outdoor setting, just us and the insects buzzing, clicking, and whizzing. We're the only ones staying here so it's very tranquil and our hosts make themselves scarce. Another feast is presented to us; tasty snails blended with lemongrass, pork, and herbs stuffed in the shells, a baked river fish and more rice paper and veg to make fresh spring rolls again. Yum! Once again, they continue to bring out more food...
A mouse scurries along the rafters - and after seeing a snake today too, we are dosed up with guilt at having recently eaten these critters!
A firefly lands on Alana - first one we've ever seen! This enthuses us to explore the river for fireflies. Sure enough we see a few parading up and down the canals lighting the way for us. As we head up to our balcony we see a whole tree sparkling bright with fireflies - it looks like fairy lights on a xmas tree. Fireflies buzz under a starlit night at a riverside island orchard on the Mekong in Vietnam. Magical.
Nature awakens us so we relax in the hammock until our next feast is due - curious if it will be fish again. Instead fresh coffee, baguettes, fresh jam, cheese, and assorted fruits appear... and then hot omelettes come out as well. Amazing. The cheese triangles taste like cream cheese but we're not complaining (Asia doesn't seem to do cheese). The coffee is served in glasses with a tin percolater sitting atop for the coffee to drain through. A third of the glass is filled with sweetened condensed milk (they don't do milk either) so it's not for the faint hearted!
Such a relaxing and special place, yet we have to move on. Our hosts flag down a boat full of locals and we proceed back to Vinh Long to take a bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Can Tho, 11-13 February
11.02.2009 - 13.02.2009 26 °C
Once again we're crammed into a minivan. Luckily we're next to the window so we can buy hot pork buns (10000 dong each) through the window from roaming vendors. Once sufficiently sandwiched in we speed off on a terrifying race to Can Tho. Our lunatic driver runs red lights, overtakes at all costs, and drives on whichever side of the road has less traffic. Even when there's a retainer wall in the middle of the road he gets us stuck driving on the wrong side to gain ground. Foot flat on the gas, hand firmly on the horn, nearly crashing when he tries to overtake at the same time as a motodriver. We assume the foetal position and brace for the anticipated impact. Somehow we survive the 3hr journey - which only takes us 2hrs. We hope this is not representative of vietnamese driving to come!
We settle into the simple but clean family run "Hien Guesthouse" ($6 US) where the kids play in the lounge and do their homework. It feels like home. Time to explore the waterfront and settle at a local resto for cheap beers (9000 dong each for a 450ml bottle) and an order of snake. It's chewy, with not much meat but for 50000 dong, we're sure there's better snake around at a bigger price. We watch the snakes slither around in their glass enclosures - they're farmed and not endangered so our consciences are relatively clear.
We take a Mekong Delta River tour at 5.30am. Once up, it's a relaxing sojourn down the river in a longtail boat, just us and our driver, and the numerous other boats transporting people and cargo up and down. We have no lights but luckily no big vessels run us down. It's amazing to see the hubbub of activity on the Mekong - a way of life we're not familiar with. We arrive at our first floating market as the sun rises. Still half asleep we are very grateful for the coffee boat that provides us with a sweet steaming brew. Buyers and sellers barter away, fresh produce loaded up on their boats.
The Mekong markets are abuzz from 6-8am before the heat intensifies. We leave our second market by 8.30am when there is a mass exodus of vendors and buyers alike. We head up through a maze of small canals surrounded by lush ferns, bamboo palms, and small bamboo pole bridges which link together many small river islands - a tranquil setting.
We stop at a rice noodle making factory (translation: a shack of rice, fire and noodle cutters). Further along the canals we stop on a river island to have lunch at the orchard. On our way back out through the canals we begin a race to the docks between us and some other equally slow longtails. Our drivers get quite competitive and take to ramming one anothers boats to take one another out.
Once safely on land, we explore the tastes of town - strawberry fruitshakes at only 8000 dong and sweet pastry turnovers filled with spiced meat, egg and vegies (5000 dong each). We were as satisfied as if we'd just had BP Connect butter chicken pies (i.e. very satisfied). It could be the new pie... and at 50cents per "pie" we had to have a few... We then educated ourselves at the Can Tho Museum (complete with French-made guillotine for the Viet Cong), and the Military Museum which showcases assorted American fighter aircraft and war weaponry.
Heading along the riverfront we see where all the westerners are hiding out. The resto's are expensive and the gardens are perfectly manicured. We keep walking towards the mothership.
The "Du Thuyen" ship is calling... We board the three level ship which sails around the river at night. We pass the disturbing glass jars of snake/bird wine combo's and what looks like bear paw wine? We'll stick to the beer (not bear!). Sailing off, it's too late to back out now so we sit on the top floor all decked out with fairy lights, overlooking the river and the city. Prime location! We bravely order "embalmed field mouse" (embalmed in spices and coconut juice if that makes it sound any better). It tastes like chicken teriyaki and looks like chicken drumsticks. Hard work to eat though due to the numerous bones and unsightly ribcages which we leave right alone. As we sail around the river, vietnamese singers perform cheesy music to entertain us. Are we on the vietnamese version of the love boat?