Tuesday, February 9, 2010


On January 16th, Sara, Katie, Andrew and I flew into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Saigon was definitely the right place to start off a vacation. The pictures above are a perfect example of where Saigon is today: at a crossroads between troubled and ancient past and an increasingly modern future.

Bustling markets, tropical parks, and literally a billion motorbikes are what make up the once ravaged capital of southern Vietnam. Though remnants of the war still remain in the form of crushed sidewalks and occasional victims of agent orange begging for change, much of Saigon has been transformed into a modern-day metropolis. Buildings skyrocket out of the landscape, sometimes obtrusively as they dwarf everything else around them. And there is as much a focus on tourism as any other business in the city. It is a juxtaposition of old and new, forced to meet each other halfway. And it's quite charming.
Above: the new Saigon Opera House. Below: a beautiful tropical park near our hotel.
On our first day, we walked around the downtown area, found the biggest (and most touristy) market in town, and had drinks in a rooftop lounge overlooking the rest of the city. We had planned to merely start our trip here, but Saigon wouldn't let us leave without experiencing a good deal more.

On day two, we took bucket-seat bikes for two to China town (where I ate KFC). Andrew and Katie's driver hooked us into the ride by handing us a handwritten letter dated some time in 2000 from a very satisfied former customer from California. He handed it to us when we told him we were from America, as if maybe we somehow knew the mysterious letter's author.
Then we headed to the Saigon Institute for the Blind where a visually disabled masseuse gave me the worst massage of my life. But he was a super-nice guy, and the room was air conditioned, regardless of the fact that it looked like one of the rooms from the movie Hostel. Here is my masseuse:
We also sampled the local cuisine: (OK, I didn't really eat the monkey brains)
And traveled to Saigon's Notre Dame:
And the War Remnants Museum (also known as the "Museum of American War Crimes").

Inside the museum, where I dared not take pictures, were thousands of pictures of burned, mutilated bodies and agent orange victims from the past and present and hundreds of examples of Vietnam-era weapons from both sides. The focus of the museum was most certainly the hideous, grotesque, torturous war waged by the blood-hungry American capitalist pigs. Ironic, as Americans seemed to make up quite a large portion of their ticket sales, and Americans are actually treated quite well around the city.
WHEW! I'm tired just thinking about that day again. We also went back to the market, ate dinner and half coffee downtown, and got ANOTHER massage at a hotel to end our evening. The second massage was much improved over the first, and we ended our stay in Saigon feeling relaxed and ready for the road ahead.

Up the Mekong
The next morning, we hopped on a prearranged bus that took us to a Mekong Delta tour boat. It was a great deal (about 20 bucks a person) until the ticket seller ripped off Katie big time. Katie wanted to pay in Vietnamese currency, and since we hadn't quite gotten a handle on the exchange rate, we thought nothing of it when the woman asked for over 800,000. In the end, we all split the difference and the trip went on unscathed.

Our Mekong tour, which was made up of about 16 different modes of transportation, was supposed to wind up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on the next day. In the meantime, we got a great taste of local Vietnamese life by visiting a coconut candy factory where the show you the process from coconut to finished candy in about 6 steps.

That night we stayed in a very run-down hotel because the hotel booked for the tour had no room for us. Everything was very well organized. The next morning, we were told by the hotel manager to explore the town we were in and come back to the hotel at 9:00 to join with our tour. We took the opportunity to have a photo shoot by the Mekong.Unfortunately, upon our return at 8:45, we were told that our tour group left over an hour ago and the hotel manager had us confused with another group of young tourists. We were put in a taxi that rushed us away to a private boat which sped us back up to our tour group, who we finally discovered eating pineapple in a floating market.
When we finally found them, the woman on the right, in the blue shirt, told us that the pineapple was so good that "it drips into your heart." I hope she doesn't mind that we took that phrase and ran with it for the next two weeks.

The floating market was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. I still don't know if it was a place where actual Vietnamese people come to shop for food, or merely a bunch of people hired by tour agencies for river tours such as ours, but either way it was beautiful and fascinating.
After we were finished with the market, we hopped back into the boat, where the median age was about 65 (brought down significantly by the four of us). How many white heads can you count?
Below: ships in Vietnam all have eyes painted on the front, in order to scare away sea monsters.
We were then shuttled to a rice noodle factory where we saw people making the noodles the same way they have for centuries. It made me feel good to be there because it was the first place we'd been where there was nothing to buy, and I knew that it was an authentic small business.
We ended our day in another market, where we found out that our guide had absolutely no idea that we were supposed to be headed to Cambodia. After a few phone calls and a little extra cash, he had us on a bus to Chau Doc, where we were hoping to finally cross into Cambodia a day late.
The next day on the way to Chau Doc, our bus accidentally took down a low-hanging banner. The bus driver and tour guide were a bit upset, but we on the bus were just amused. Once we finally got going again we made our first pit-stop at a crocodile farm, where we were reminded of some simple facts of life, such as:
After that short pit-stop, we were headed again to the border crossing. We got into town quite late, and only had enough daylight to go to a temple on the town's single, solitary mountain. From the west patio of the temple, we were able to see our goal in the distance. The mountains you see in this far off, left-hand side of this picture are Cambodia, the town below is part of Chau Doc:Chau Doc is little more than a border town, with not much tourism to speak of. But what we did find there was something that is essential on every vacation: travel buddies. The bus from our Mekong Delta tour to Chau Doc was filled with a whole new group, and we hit it off with them spectacularly that evening.

From left to right is Creepy Guy from Vietnam, Ana from Japan, Sara, Me, Katie, Nills from the Netherlands, Andrew, and Charlotte and Jay from England. (I can't remember the Vietnamese guy's name, but he kept trying to hit on Ana the entire time.)
They were a wonderful group, and after dinner we went on a mission to find Chau Doc's only open bar. And we succeeded in our mission. Katie and Sara especially enjoyed themselves.After keeping the bar open for several hours later than the bar staff probably wanted to, we all strolled (stumbled?) back to our hotel, and pounded on the front gate for the sleeping clerk to let us in. It was a night I will not soon forget.
Above, from left to right: Sara, Charlotte, Jay, Andrew, Katie, Nills, Ana.

Vietnam was almost lost on us. We had few plans there, and didn't know what we wanted to see, but we found a nation brimming with spirit and life, and some new friends to share the experience with. And though we left Jay, Charlotte, Ana and Nills in Vietnam that last night, Sara and I were lucky to be able to go on to Cambodia with the two best travel friends of all.

Come back in a few days for tales from Cambodia!