Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong River

Feb 3 - 9

Ho Chi Minh City

Taxi scams were a regular occurrence by now so it was no surprise when the taxi driver that had driven us from the train station to Bui Vien Road demanded another $1 for having 4 passengers in his taxi. This wasn't mentioned when we got into the taxi! It was 5.30am and we weren't in the mood to give in to him so we refused to give it to him and after a little rudeness and huffing and puffing he gave up. Next we had to deal with the hotel touts who followed us around trying to take us to the hotels that would give them a commission. We tried to find a hotel ourselves but it was 6am and not many were open, a few were full so we gave in and went to a nice hotel which the touts took us to - Hai Dong. The touts had said it would be $8, it turned out to be $10 but we were too tired to argue or keep looking so we took it and fell into bed for a few hours before exploring the city. The Hai Dong Hotel had a couple of interesting house rules: Opium is not strictly prohibited (that's a bit half-hearted!) and No prostitutes allowed in the rooms (does that mean that on the stairs or in the bar would be ok?)

Ho Chi Minh is much bigger than Hanoi and moves at a faster pace; we didn't find any beautiful quiet oasis like the lake in Hanoi but we did find a nice, if a bit noisy, park. The park had lots of blooming flower stalls which we saw a lot while we were in Ho Chi Minh because we were there the week before Tet (Chinese New Year), which was February 12 this year. The city was preparing for the holiday celebrations with decorations and lots of lovely flower markets which really brightened up the city. After visiting the very French Dr. Pin for my second rabies jab we passed by a school where all the parents were waiting to take their kids home on scooters - makes a change from the fleets of 4x4s you see in London!


Updated June 02: We picked up some more cheap DVD's and CD's here, but got a shock whilst looking through one box of PC software: There, staring up at us, was a copy of "Respect Inc." Pure Entertainment's second game - just goes to show that they will pirate anything! Even at 50p we didn't think it was worth buying a copy. It comes as a bit of a shock to see some of your own work for sale in a tiny stall in south Vietnam.

A piccy here of the five of us (from left to right) Richard, Sue, Jo, Amanda and Jacqui on our last night together in the Good Morning Vietnam restaurant - we managed to visit all three branches in the chain along the way down the coast: attempts to blag a free t-shirt by informing the manager of this failed, oh well! Richard, Sue, Jo, Amanda and Jacqui in Good Morning Vietnam, HCM

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi tunnels were first built by the Viet Minh who used them while fighting French colonisation, in the 1940s. The underground honeycomb was expanded to over 200kms of tunnels by the communist Viet Cong guerillas in the late 1950s and served as a command centre and communication network during the American/Vietnam War in the 1960's. The tunnels are quite close to Ho Chi but there are other tunnels around the country. We got to see the many types of hideous traps which we used to protect the tunnels, the massive holes where bombs from B52s were dropped, a tank, bombs and artillary. We sat in one of the underground rooms - a conference room and went down one of the tunnels, which had been specially widened for tourists to 120cm x 80cm. If you bent your legs and bent forwards it was possible to walk through the tunnel but it was very dark and claustrophobic and the air smells and tastes musty. We were happy to get out, it must have been horrible to have spent months underground at a time. There was another smaller tunnel (80cm x 50cm) which some people when through but none of us fancied it - once you go in the only way out is the other end - what if we got stuck?

Got to shoot some big guns here. An AK-47, the terrorists gun of choice, for Richard and the M-16 (lightweight 'girls' gun) for Jacqui, Sue and I - piccy of Jo taking up the armed struggle here. We didn't win anything though - in fact none of us hit the target at all - we just need a bit of practise.

Saigon Water Park - A Grand Day Out

Very rarely have I had this much fun. There were all the usual slides and wave pools to muck about in but we (Amanda too) got more than we expected here. There were probably 15-20 adults at the Water Park (all westerners) and there were hundreds of Vietnamese school children. They probably thought it was very strange to see adults mucking about in the water but they took advantage and had some fun with us. The first time we were ambushed on the Lazy River. There we were relaxing on our rubber rings, floating down the river and minding our own business when we were surrounded by 20 or so children. They started to say hello, ask our names and tried a couple of the other english phrases they had learnt in school on us - they were very good. But when their confidence increased we were for it; they took great delight in shooting us with their water pistols, splashing us and even trying to capsize us from our rings. They found us hilarious and they relentlessly attacked us until, exhausted, we found a way out of the river and made our escape... only to be pounced on by another group of children when we were in the Wave Pool. This time they really just wanted to practise their english (and in the case of one girl, french!) on us. Richard looked quite scared though when he was surrounded by a group of giggly 12 year old girls. The bravest girl in the group would ask him a question and when he answered they would all blush coyly and giggle - young love eh?!!!

We went to the Water Park on our last day in Ho Chi Minh before leaving to go on a boat on the Mekong River that would take us to Cambodia. But before we left Ho Chi Minh we had one very important thing left to do......we had to fill our boots...with as many cds and dvds as we could carry - our music collection is starting to look halfway decent now - ok, in our opinion - I'm sure some people would disagree!

The Mekong River

To get from Ho Chi Minh to Cambodia you can a) fly (expensive), b) take the bus (10 hours or more on bumpy roads) or c) take the boat - mmm that sounds good especially when one of the tours is advertising a MORE BOAT LESS BUS tour. Perfect... but hold on you've forgotten something - oh yes, this is Vietnam so no way are you going to get what they tell you. So when the leaflet reads 'only three and a half hours on the bus' you need to realise that it will be over 5 hours. When it says 'first class, deluxe, luxury big boat with bar and restaurant' what it really means is 'right, first we're going to stuff a dangerously large number of people and all their lugguage into small, unstable longboats and we'll make sure they are so packed in that they can't move a muscle. After 30 minutes of discomfort (hopefully the boat won't capsize if there is a strong bit of wash??) they'll meet up with a bigger boat and have to make a mid-river transfer with all of their belongings. The bigger boat will have sofas (but with all the springs broken) and the bar and restaurant will sell coffee, beer, coke and crisps - that's it' The icing on the cake was the 'big boat' we went on in Cambodia which was actually a number of speedboats!!

Still, enough moaning, we got to Cambodia in one piece and some parts of the Mekong Trip were nice. I'm sure it was still more comfortable to take the boat than go all the way by bus. The trip also included a short trek through a Vietnamese village to an observation deck which overlooked a stork sanctuary. Seeing the storks wasn't that impressive, the walk through the village was the highlight. A number of children started walking along with us. A little boy, he was probably twelve or more but looked about eight, took hold of Richard's hand as we walked along. He didn't chatter like some of the other children but he was very diligent in his duty of walking with us. When Richard wanted to take some video the boy wouldn't let go of Richard's hand until he had my hand firmly in his grasp (iron grip!). I tried to talk to him but he really didn't understand much. He was shy and quiet but he stuck to us like glue. When we left our little guy we gave him a pen and later we saw him again trying to direct people to somewhere to buy things - bye bye.

Another highlight of the trip was seeing life on the Mekong River: the houses on stilts, women lowering buckets from their doors in the houses to get water out of the river, hundreds of shabby wooden houses but 99% had TV aerials (priorities eh!), people taking their baths in the river, kids going mad - shouting and waving at us, men fishing from their small boats that rock dangerously as we pass them, the lushness of the scenery and watching the sunset over the banks of the river as we speed by.

Sunset over the Mekong river Sunset over the Mekong river

After walking a gangplank over the river to disembark from the boat we stayed the night in Chau Doc which is near the Cambodian border. The rest of the story of our trip along the Mekong to Cambodia continues on the Cambodia page...

Last impressions:

Worst things about Vietnam

Not many things lessened our enjoyment in and appreciation of Vietnam but the amount of hastle we got from taxi drivers and cyclo drivers was relentless and tiresome. In Nha Trang, particularly, they followed us around all the time. The first morning cyclos followed Jacqui and I for half an hour and no amount of polite refusal sent them on their way, it made us uncomfortable and was disheartening. Then there were the famous scams, I think we were done at least once a day! Everybody involved in tourism was trying to take us for a ride. They had no shame about it. Sometimes we didn't notice and then kicked ourselves but there was nothing we could really do about it and it was always just a few pounds that we lost so we had to curse them and then laugh about it. If it had been going to someone who needed it we wouldn't have cared, but those in the tourism industry are amongst the richest Vietnamese, the people who'd really benefit from a couple of extra dollars never got a chance. Apart from these small things the only other hard thing we had to cope with was getting sweet, thick, disgusting condensed milk in our coffee. It really was revolting. Even when we asked for fresh milk we would often get a glass which looked like black coffee but with a thin white layer at the bottom. You know it's condensed milk when you put your spoon in and it stands up. Condensed milk is incredibly sweet but the gloopy texture is what really makes you feel sick.

Best things about Vietnam

These far outweigh the negatives. Vietnam is a beautiful country and relatively unspoilt by all of us tourists traipsing around but that will probably change as it is much easier to travel to and around nowadays. It was the most different way of life we have seen, so far. The people (taxi and cyclo drivers excluded) were fantastic. Friendly (especially Anh in our hotel in Nha Trang) and helpful (Dr Dao and the staff at the hospital in Nha Trang). We were overwhelmed by the kids everywhere, they literally gawped at us. We didn't know whether we felt like celebrities or freaks and got a taste of what it must be like for all people in the communities we traipse through on our travels. The kids didn't have any shyness so we couldn't walk down the street without a loads of them saying hello every minute and when we were on boats we got sore arms from waving so much at kids on the bank. We saw lots of beautiful places and met lots of lovely people but, for me, the best and most unforgettable experience was that day at the Water Park.


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