Travel notes from the trip Southern Vietnam in the end of March 2002.
Published: Apr 2002
travel, hotel, Saigon, Viet nam, Vietnam, Vang Tau, Thai Massage, Cu Chi tunnels, guerillas, War Remnants museum, hydrofoil, Mekong Delta, Mekong River, ho chi minh city, asian, war trail, little saigon, tour
We have spent all nights in Saigon (Ho Chi Min City), but one in Vang Tau. The first two night we have stayed in the Asian Hotel, which was a part of package. The room was OK, but we had to leave early and come back late since there was a construction site next to our window.
While in Saigon, we have circled around the town, learning about the horrible traffic, mainly comprised of motorcycles, leading to a heavy smog in town. It's virtually impossible to cross a street, not even on the traffic light, since the vehicles move all the time en masse, so the only way to cross is to simply walk through the traffic, hoping that someone won't hit you. Eventually we've got used to cross the street anywhere.
On the first days we have visited the local Notre Dame church and the Post office, saw many red flags with yellow star in the middle and soviet 'serp and molot' flags. If you think that "pyatiletka" (5 years industrial planning) is dead, you are wrong. In Vietnam you can see huge placards with 2001-2005 "pyatiletka" pictures.
In the evening we went to the Botanical and Zoological gardens, which were in a very bad shape. It was a mockery of botanical gardens in Singapore or Christchurch (NZ), but at least it was quiet there.
At night we had a Thai massage (apparently there is no such a thing as Vietnamese massage). My masseur (man) was quite good, Anya's (girl) was quite bad. At the end there is always a part where the tip is given. They weren't satisfied with what we gave them and demanded more.
On the second day we took a half a day trip to Cu Chi tunnels. This is the place where the local guerrillas (partisans) were hiding while fighting American troops. They say that this underground fort was the key to the Vietnamese unbreakable resistance. This fort wasn't defeated since the soldiers couldn't find the entrances to the tunnels, since they were well camouflaged (see the photos). In case someone was able to find the way in, various deadly traps were waiting them ahead (again, see the photos). We crawled through some of these tunnels which were pretty narrow, but remember that Vietnamese have very small bodies, so it probably was much easier for them to move along these.
The guide was quite bad. It was hard to understand him and he didn't really talk. Not talking about the fact that this half a day cost US$24 per person. Definitely not worth that amount of money. And the rest of the tours at Saigon Tourist agency were horribly expensive, $150 and more for 2 days trip. As I will describe later we could have the same trip for only US$9, so this was a simple rip-off, which was a recurrent thing in Saigon.
On the way back we realised that we have nothing to do in Saigon, so we went to the train station, thinking that may be we can go to Phnom Pen, the capital of Cambodia. When we've reached the train station we have discovered that there is only one cross country train and it takes at least 10 hours to get to the nearest town, there was no train to Cambodia.
The second half of the day we spent walking around the local sites, which weren't interesting at all. But we ate in the restaurant "Kangaroo", where we have tasted kangaroo according to the menu. The meat wasn't different from beef, but was cooked very nice. The food in Vietnam is quite nice. Too bad we had to eat only in real restaurants, because we were afraid to get local germs which are plentiful here. Back in Thailand I've tried great food in the local eateries, and the food was great! But here it's better to stay away from dirty places (dishes are washed in the bucket with the same water at the best case).
After the lunch we have visited the War Remnants museum, which is probably the key touristy site in Saigon. It's quite hard to watch what's on display, since some photos showing very non-human things: tortures and killings, what happens to people after chemical attacks and what happens to their newly born kids. Horrors. The museum includes lots of photos from the Indochina French and the American wars, Japan's after the nuclear bombs and local prisons, mainly in the Con Dao island. Also the yard was full of American fighting vehicles, planes, helicopters and lots of diverse bombs. They even have a real French guillotine on display (see the photos).
On the way from the War we saw an ad for a Jazz concert, so we went to check it out, thinking that we are going to watch a local show. To our surprise this was a fantastic concert of Jugend Jazzorchester (state youth jazz orchestra of Hessen). At the end of the concert the musicians returned to their instruments three times on bis, the audience would simply not leave. The audience was comprised mainly from westerns but the few locals seemed to tremendously enjoy the concert. Most likely the local simply couldn't afford to come, the price for locals was US$1.3 (yes, one dollar 30 cents), foreigners had to pay about US$3.
On the next day (Saturday) we left the hotel in the morning and headed to the river to take the hydrofoil to the local beach resort called Vung Tau. The day before we saw the hydrofoil ship, and I told Anya that it reminded me of Russian 'raketa' which we used to take to go on our river in Gomel. To my surprise, the hydrofoil was *the* 'raketa', with the same old Russian electricity sockets and titles in Russian. The ride cost as twice more than to locals, and was quite expensive US$10. The boat left an hour later, but the ride itself wasn't that bad as we sat next to another tourist and his local guide so we talked all the way to Vang Tau. The rest of the people on the hydrofoil were locals. I guess those were the rich ones since the ride was quite expensive for them, about US$6. The average yearly salary is about US$200-300 here.
Luckily the private guide that the tourist sitting next to us had told us about a cheap hotel in Vung Tau and told us where the good backpacker agencies are in Saigon. If you are looking for a private guide, contact him at email@example.com, he seemed to be a very nice guy and his client confirmed that. So we have arrived to the beach resort, which is supposed to become a Vietnamese version of Thai's Pattaya, but as of this moment it was full of local people and hardly any tourists. Most western faces here were Russians, and we saw many signs in Russian around the town. The town was small and very hot at noon, but nice in the evening with a pleasant breeze blowing from the Chinese Sea.
We walked around the town, looking for a place to buy the town's map or find an information centre but couldn't find any. Eventually we bought the map from the post office. We hired two cyclos ('rickshaw') to take us to the town, but once we got off they continued to follow us everywhere for some hour...
In the evening we went again to the town and walked around. This town was a small copy of Saigon with a relatively heavy traffic as well. At night we went for a great foot massage at the beach, it cost us about US$4 which was much cheaper than in the centre of Saigon and the quality was fantastic. And we are experts in all kinds of Asian massages since we do these for more than a year quite often, so we can tell very fast if a masseur is good or not.
The hotel didn't have sheets on the bed, so it was good that we have foreseen this and brought some sheets with us. The shower was quite bad but better than nothing.
On the next day we spent a few hours at the seashore, tried the local coffee, which is served in a weird way and tastes weird too. The sea was quite dirty at the shallow waters, but quite OK further into the water. The water temperature was very nice since it was very hot outside (about +33C).
At noon we have checked out from the hotel and left for the hydrofoil back to Saigon since we had nothing to do in Vang Tau and we didn't like the idea of staying one more day there. This time we left on time, but the aircon didn't quite work. Oh, well we are coming from Singapore so we are used to the heat :) When we have arrived back to Saigon we went directly to the De Tham street which is the back packers area, which the Quoc Le Hung has told us about. There we have found Sinh Cafe which had a bunch of tours to offer and much much cheaper than any other tourist agency in Saigon. We didn't try other agencies on that street, since this was *the* backpackers agency and most people bought from them. The Sinh Cafe agency also provides hotel reservation and we've got a great room for only US$14 (including breakfast, aircon and bed sheets). It was only 10 steps from the office, which is where the tour buses took off. Compare this to the much worse Asian hotel just a few blocks away for US$35.
We had a lunch at the 'Good Morning, Vietnam' cafe, which was so so. Later the next day we had a dinner there and it was very good.
We spent the rest of the day wondering around the city, inhaling the heavy smog. Every day when we had our third shower we were still washing down tons of black water, like if we didn't shower for a few weeks. As you can see from the photos, a majority of women have face masks when they walk on the street or ride a bike.
In the evening we had cakes in the french restaurant, which weren't so good. The rest of the food in this place was quite good though. We are getting used to the fact that it's hard to find a place where both the food and deserts are good. So if you had a great lunch, usually it's a good idea to skip the deserts. And if you liked the deserts think twice before ordering a dinner in the same place.
At night I had another foot massage which was quite unusual, since it was all done as an acupuncture with the wooden stick, almost no touching with hands. And quite painful, but this is normal, since it works as in 'no pain, no gain'. BTW, the massages in this area were twice cheaper than in the centre a few blocks away. We still missed the Thai massages we had in Thailand.
The next day (Monday) we took a trip to My Tho at Mekong Delta, on the Mekong River which is one of the biggest rivers in the world starting in China and ending in Thailand. The river's water are thick yellow, as you can see from the photos. This is quite different from the blue water rivers we saw in New Zealand. The trip again wasn't very good. The ride was very long and we had very bad seats on the small bus, as we didn't fit into the big bus which has left earlier. The fish market wasn't shown to us, though promised in the program. We saw how the coconut candies are made, tried local honey and listened to a horrible local folklore. Well actually I left and wondered around the village taking photos. The ride on the boat was quite nice. At around 4pm we headed back to Saigon at about 15kmh, since the road were jammed. When we got off the bus we a couple of tourists has asked us about the trip we just came back from and we ended up having a dinner together. It was nice.
We walked some more around the backpackers area and went for another Thai massage, my masseur (a girl) was horrible this time, while Anya liked hers. At the end they gave us 'tip vouchers' like the tip is *the* payment and the payment is not for them. Most of the massage the girls laughed and hardly did any massage. We gave a bigger tip to the Anya's masseur and my masseur was ready to eat me. What do you think, the guy who let us in and didn't do anything at all has asked for a tip too.
The next morning we were having a breakfast and getting ready to go to the airport. A young healthy women with a boy of about 2 years old were sitting at the entrance and sending the boy to beg from tourist showing him where to go and how to beg. This was very unpleasant, as children are forced to beg money by they parents, who as we saw could as well go and work and leave the kids alone to have a normal childhood. Don't understand me wrong, we are not against helping poor people in need. Unfortunately local people learn that it's much easier and more profitable to beg from tourists than work. They don't want food, they want money. A 5 years old children carry their 1 year old brothers and sisters to help them raise pity in tourists and give them more money.
The side effect of the kids being beggars is that some of them speak a perfect English and able to held a very good conversation. At least it'll be easier for them with some aspects of the future. But we would prefer to see them having a normal childhood, as poor as it can be, may be playing in the dirt, but not begging for money.
Back on the plane I was reading the local newspaper which was saying that the government has big plans for making tourists spend more in Vietnam... with the aggressiveness the local rip off the tourists now, we aren't in doubt that they will succeed very well in making tourists spend more money
BTW, if you think that the fruits on the big markets are cheaper than in the department store here, you are wrong. It may be true for the locals, but for foreigners the price will be at least three times higher.
We were so glad to come back to Singapore from Vietnam. It was a tiring and frustrating adventure, making it one of the places we won't come back to in the near future. It was still an experience, even though not the best one, so we don't regret we went there.
Catherine Karnow : Vietnam: http://www.atlasmagazine.com/photo/karnow/karnow_t/karnow_tA.html