January 19, 2007

Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta

If I have not said it before, I will now. The open tour buses, run by several companies, are the most comfortable and speedy way to travel in Vietnam, other than by air. The bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was smooth and easy. Of course Ho Chi Minh City is also known as Saigon.

To view all 270 photos from the south of Vietnam in a slideshow, press HERE.

Saigon Post Office
HCMC Central Cathedral
Nguyen Van Anh
Chris Smith and Megan Terry

HCMC is bigger, busier and glitzier than Hanoi. The downtown is better laid out with broader and cleaner streets, and nicer buildings. On the other hand, there is almost nothing to see or do. One day we rented a motorbike and visited a number of sites. They have a lovely post office that was built at the turn of the 20th century, probably by the French. Next to it is the central cathedral for the city. It was an ordinary looking catholic church that is at least 80 years old. We visit a small soup shop, Bienh Pho (peace soup), where the Vietnamese gathered information and planned the attack on US embassy for the Tet offensive in 1968. We also visited the War Remnants Museum. Even though it is not as good as the Hanoi Museum, it reminded me about the arrogance of "our" leaders, the viciousness and racist nature of the Vietnam War. I also learned that John McCain was not the only war criminal elected to the Senate. John rained bombs on the innocent from the sky. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska did his slaughter of civilians up-close and personal. He led a team that slaughtered women and children at Thanh Phong in 1968 during the Vietnam War, or as they call it here, the American War. If you want to read more about this SOB, Google him. I found one very interesting article on the Web that I recommend to all my readers. Click here to read it.
We went to a piano concert on Friday evening. We listened to a beautiful, young, Australian pianist of Vietnamese decent. Her name is Nguyen Van Anh. We have gone to many classical concerts in Vietnam: enjoyable, easy and inexpensive.

The day that our visas came last October from the Vietnamese embassy, the letter carrier was a substitute. We had to sign for them and Betty learned that his daughter, Megan Terry, lived in Saigon. We got her contact information, and arranged to meet her. We had dinner with her and her boyfriend. It was a long and lovely conversation and evening. She and Chris have been living and teaching English in Saigon for seven months.

On the Mekong River
Ending in a Tiny Canal
The Can Tho Floating Market
Boats in the Market
Making Rice Noodles
The Way to Chau Doc
Floating Homes and Fish Farms
A Minority Community

Sunday 21st of January:
This was the first day of a three day journey to Phnom Penh. There are only 130 miles that separate Saigon and Phnom Penh. So, you might wonder what took so long. There are two answers to that question: Half the journey was by boat and the route was not direct. In general the boat travel was good because of what we could see along the way and bad because it was so slow. Except for the first day, when the boat traveled at 19 km/hour, the boats were going less than 11 km/hour or 6 mph.
We ate lunch on the boat before reaching My Tho in the early afternoon. We spent time visiting several local villages to observe life in the Mekong delta. We got on to some very small boats where we passed through the thick delta vegetation. In the late afternoon we boarded a bus to travel about 70 km to Can Tho during the next three hours. Yes, it was as slow as the traffic in India.

We were roused at 6:15 on the second day of our tour through the Mekong delta. I was really enjoying the sites. The people seemed to be the friendliest that we had met in Vietnam. By boat in the Can Tho area we visited a floating Market and several businesses operations related to rice. The floating market consisted of a hundred boats anchored in the river. Each boat had a cane pole from which hung a sample of their product, mostly fruit and vegetables. We went to a rice noodle factory. It was very primitive. The rice paste was pored on to surface heated by rice husks. Then a large pancake like sheet of semi-cooked rice paste was laid on a bamboo screen to dry in the sun for six hours. Later the dried sheet was cut into noodles. We also visited a rice husking operation. They said the equipment was modern, but it looked to be about 60 years old to me. We returned to the town center for lunch. We were given far too much time to get on the bus and then the bus was late, due to greed or disorganization. This pissed me off. It was so late by the time we got to the next boat; I knew that we would soon be traveling in the dark on the water. The people along the canal we travel on were extremely friendly, constantly waving and calling hello. We could see them swimming and washing. Their homes were so close we could practically see in. The sad part was that they were so poor, although we did note, based on the antenna along the way, that every home had a television. I was right about darkness coming before we left the boat. That was a pity because the people and the sites were so good on this section of the tour. We arrived at a crummy hotel in Chau Doc, and checked into a pretty unsatisfactory room. Our fellow travelers were just as unhappy as Betty and I were. Speaking of fellow travelers, we got to know a number of German, Swiss and Australian tourists, wonderful people. The second day showed me that Delta Adventure Tours was greedy and not the service provider they are trumped up to be. The promised tour group size of 15 was really forty or more. Still, we enjoyed what we saw and did. If we had known how wonderful the delta would be, we would have taken our time and gone much more slowly.

The Mekong in Cambodia

Tuesday, the 23rd:
We were roused even earlier, at 6:00, on the third day. We went to the docks and got on small boats that took us through a myriad of floating homes and fish farms. We stopped on fish farm. While it was a family operation, it was clear that it was extremely profitable, producing more than $200,000 per year in gross revenues for a very small fish farm. Then we visited an Islamic minority community. There were 30,000 living in this area. It was interesting, especially the argument that arose among the westerners; some who where disgusted with the treatment of women in the community and others who were upset because of the judgmental nature of the first group -after all, these were cultural differences. To westerners who value freedom and cultural diversity it can be a real dilemma as to which side to come down on the issue. For me it is easy choice. Guess which side I came down on? We got on a large boat and headed for the boarder. The boat was nice and comfortable enough and in the narrow channels the views were great. We got our Cambodian Visas at the boarder, $20 each. Then we walked across the boarder and were put on a really bad boat:, no vests, no floatation, and very uncomfortable benches. We traveled in this hellish situation half way, for 3-1/2 hours. Then we transferred on the worst boat dock imaginable to an awful bus that took us to the King Hotel in Phnom Penh. The hotel owned the bus. God, was the tour operator a greedy, cheap bastard: Screw that Delta Adventure Tours.. We would have stayed there one night, but I was not going to walk up five floors to another crummy room. I found a really nice room a couple of streets over.

Delta Adventure Tours gave at best a mixed service. The route and what we saw were good. The accommodations and some of the buses were not at all good. I would not use them again.

Now we are in Phnom Penh. I will report on it next time.

Posted by bill at January 19, 2007 11:58 PM

Hi Bill
You always amaze me in your travels! Hope to see you in New Zealand again soon! Heading to Great Barrier Island for the upcoming Waitangi Day weekend. Saw the twins in San Diego in Nov 06 and they were lots of fun! Isabela and Raquel are in Brasil at her fathers table grape farm, picking. I'm working for Fletcher Construction Engineering as their traffic engineer. We are building an exclusive bus lane facility next to the freeway towards the CBD. Ben and Alana 10 and 7 are doing good and happy I am back here in Devonport. I have a cute 1 br near my old place. Hope you can get down here again.
Safe travels

Posted by: Jeff Roberts at January 26, 2007 01:21 AM

I have to say Iím truly amazed as well! I enjoy reading your detailed descriptions and comments (Iíve recently seen a film on the Vietnam War and I couldnít agree with you more!) and looking at all the photos.
BTW, you donít like the food there that much, right? Because you both look so skinny! LOL

Posted by: Laura Battaglia at January 26, 2007 11:45 AM

Informative and creative. I enjoy reading the news and feel that I am experiencing your descriptive events.

I am seriously jealous that you are able to find the time and energy to travel to all the places that I would like to visit. In the meantime, I will use your descriptions and imagine myself there.

Posted by: Ana-Maria at January 29, 2007 06:33 AM