Motorbikes and the Mekong: Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta: 26-30 Dec '13
Thu 26 Dec 13 - Mon 30 Dec 13 31 °C
Faced with choice of a cheapish flight or a 30 hour bus journey, and with the weather in Vietnam so far not inspiring for beaches, I cheekily flew from Da Nang, near Hoi An, to Ho Chi Minh. Saigon was, for me, a difficult city to travel in. As the biggest city in Vietnam, it has all the infrastructure, plenty of hostels and bars, and lots of interesting places to see. But my hostel was half-empty and it was seemingly impossible to find out or book onward transport through the Mekong Delta to Southern Cambodia. Sure, buses exist, but no one can tell you when or how they work, but they'll assure you the do know, before suddenly not being able to sort anything out. So a very frustrating time was involved.
Despite this, the former capital of South Vietnam is a fascinating city, and packed from end to end with a multitude of motorbikes. HCMC is the place to learn about the Vietnam War - with the interesting Reunification Palace - preserved as it was when the Northern tanks broke through the gates in 1975 when South Vietnam surrendered - and the War Remnants Museum, which poignantly displays the atrocities of the war, although not from an entirely unbiased perspective. I also took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong controlled a large area by hiding from the US in an extensive tunnel network with scarily ingenious traps and other guerilla operations to stop the US army in its tracks.
In contrast to this, I visited some of the symbols of old Saigon - the Notre Dame Cathedral, the impressive French Colonial Post Office, and two contrasting temples, the Mariamman Hindu temple, all riotous colour (including neon) and the Jade Emperor Pagoda - a Chinese style temple that was surprisingly darkly coloured, although with the explosion of statues like the Hindu Temple and a lot (an awful lot) of turtles.
But the best thing in Ho Chi Minh was the street food - who can argue with lunch for half a dollar? My favourites were Banh Mi - a baguette filled with a pate like substance plus various salads and meats, and possibly an egg - and a noodles salad where she just kept adding things to the bag. I also got fresh Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, which is guaranteed to make me happy.
The nightlife in HCMC is as bustling as the day - with a big fair in the park full of food, live music and even badminton, and the big street bars in D Bui Vien, where you can drink to your hearts content for a couple of dollars.
Next stop was the Mekong Delta, which I ended up doing on a day trip returning to Saigon - not my original plan, but the only one that seemed to be giving me any sense. Although obviously geared to tourists (visits to a workshop making coconut candy, popped rice and rice wine (whisky) anyone?), it did give you an insight to the Delta - with visits to Cai Be floating market, Vinh Long land market, cycling through a village, and boat rides through tiny canals and the Mekong itself. It made me wish the original homestay plan had worked out...