Saigon & The Mekong Delta

After a last-minute redemption of air miles, Andy and I found ourselves sitting on the upper deck of a United Airlines 747 for the two hour flight from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, the Communists renamed it Ho Chi Minh City on May 1st, 1975, the day after the fall of Saigon. It’s hard to forget those images of American helicopters desperately trying to evacuate people from the city in the days leading up to that.

Having failed to secure a Vietnam travel visa in advance, I had organized one on arrival through a travel agency. The fee included a transfer from the airport, and seeing a driver holding a Mr. Serra sign at an airport for the first time in my life couldn’t have come at a better time. It was pure chaos as we stepped out into the oppressive night heat, there seemed to be thousands of people, plus cars, taxis and motorcycles everywhere. Thankfully our driver had us on our way in minutes and at our hotel a half hour later.

Our first stop the next day was the War Remnants Museum. It contains some American military equipment left over from the war, which was pretty cool to see

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But the museum also contains exhaustive details about millions of Vietnamese killed and injured during the war. There are photos of B52 bombers delivering payloads, napalm bombs and their victims, photos that claim to show Vietnamese men, women and children being interrogated, tortured, dragged to death, thrown from helicopters, and even beheaded. The My Lai massacre of 1968 where over 500 villagers were killed is featured prominently. There is a clear anti-American sentiment in a lot of the photo captions, although the museum claims it is there not to incite hatred but instead, “for learning lessons from history.”  I do know that we walked out of there shaking our heads at the thought of how difficult it must have been to be in Vietnam during that time, regardless of which side you were on.

The Pho Binh noodle shop is located only 100 meters from where the U.S. military police barracks were situated during the war. Mr. Toai, the owner, served noodles on a daily basis to U.S. troops, but upstairs he hosted an undercover Viet Cong command post. It was from there that significant planning took place for the 1968 Tet Offensive, including the failed assault on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. After the assault Mr. Toai’s cover was blown, and he was almost executed on the spot in the noodle shop, then tortured and jailed for life. But with the fall of the South in 1975 he was freed and returned to his noodle shop. Despite his duplicitous dealings and near death experience, Mr. Toai apparently never wavered or regretted his decision to back the Communist Revolution. “I have kept my communist spirit” he once said, “I will always be a soldier of Ho Chi Minh and I will maintain my belief in the revolutionary cause until the day I die.”  That said, market reforms and growing tourism in Vietnam have meant growing business at Pho Binh. Apparently now you can even pay for the privilege of bedding down upstairs in the room where the Tet Offensive was planned.

Here is Mr. Toai’s son, who seemed very proud of his father as he shared all of this information with us

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Apparently some American veterans have even visited the shop. An excerpt from an article on the wall:

“My friend, 29 years ago the war that took place here in Vietnam changed my life,” wrote one U.S. veteran who posed with the old man for posterity. “I have returned to see if I can help in my own small way to let you know how I came to make peace with my own past.”
Toai dotes on the U.S. veterans who pass through the door.
“One veteran asked me whether I hated Americans,” he recalls. “I said ‘no, we do not bear any animosity. I am happy to see you and you are welcome here’.”

That sounds good to me. Plus, the noodle soup is fantastic.

About 70 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City lays the Cu Chi Tunnel Network, at one time a 200 km maze of tunnels that extended from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border. The Viet Cong used the tunnels to come to the outskirts of Saigon almost completely undetected, stage surprise attacks and then slip away. Our guide Tree spent a few hours showing us around

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A typical tunnel entrance

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Andy trying to squeeze in

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Obviously I didn’t even try. There are certain areas of the tunnels which they have widened to accommodate tourists, so we had a look in there. Still pretty uncomfortable

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And it got a lot narrower

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It is really amazing that many people actually lived in these tunnel networks, digging out sleeping, eating and meeting quarters at various intervals along the tunnels. Overall, a very memorable day, plus we got to shoot guns

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Over on the rifle range they were out of ammo for the AK-47, so we opted to fire off a few rounds from an M1 rifle. Pretty powerful kick and very loud.

Vietnam is a pretty small country that somehow packs in over 80 million people, and it shows on the streets of Saigon. The road rules are pretty simple, there are none. According to one guide “Visitors should consider the city’s streets dangerous due to motorists’ general disregard for pedestrians and the constant presence of thousands of motorbikes on the roads.” The one day we walked about 5km around downtown Saigon, it was an adventure crossing every street. A green walk sign is meaningless, and should instead read pay attention or die. It came down to wind sprints through any available gap in the traffic to get across the roads, and we took taxis everywhere the rest of the trip.

Typical traffic

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Child safety seats?

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Giving a friend a ride

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The local bar around the corner from our hotel was called Apocalypse Now; it was tough to resist the urge to toast drinks and scream “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!”   Surely that would have been in poor taste. But talking about Colonel Kilgore and Captain Willard did get us thinking, and it wasn’t long before we decided to take a two day boat trip up the Mekong River into Cambodia.

A two hour bus ride from Saigon took us to Vinh Long near the top of the Mekong Delta, where we caught our boat. Keeping the sun off of our heads, not too bad at a nickel per hat

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Lots of floating markets near Vinh Long

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Stopped off at a riverside market to see how rice paper is made for wrapping those tasty Vietnamese spring rolls

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Making a living

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Fishing?

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Taking some pride in their ride, with a nice bow paint job

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After a long day of travel, we ended up in Chau Doc near the Cambodian border. We were already booked into a local hotel as part of our excursion, but my cousin was skeptical of the standards. With increasing persistence on his part, and a lack of resistance on my part, we upgraded to the Victoria Hotel, which was pretty sweet

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The next morning a large speed boat picked us up from the hotel dock, and we were off to Cambodia, the border about an hour away. We soon heard stories from other passengers about mosquito and bedbug bites at the local hotel. We also discovered that everybody else was on anti-malaria medication, which neither of us was. The Victoria rooms were mosquito and bedbug free, and my cousin got a few grateful pats on the back for that.

Within a few miles of the border

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Good morning sir

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A sweet little girl waving hello

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Before we could leave Vietnam, we had to stop and have our passports stamped by Vietnamese immigration, and possibly our bags inspected. Our welcoming committee at the immigration office

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The local hacky sack queen, we nicknamed her Miss. Bend it Like Beckham

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She quickly had Andy and I sweating in the hot morning sun trying to keep up with her

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My new friend who insisted on carrying my bag back to the boat

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Andy’s baggage porter

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They are all trying to make a buck, but they still had some of that sweetness and innocence of youth. It was a great hour spent waiting for all of the passports to get processed. When we did get back on the boat, we realized that we only had a U.S. $5 bill, nothing smaller, and so reluctantly, I handed it to Miss. Beckham with instructions to share it with the boys who had carried the bags. As the boat pulled away, it looked like that $5 bill was about to cause a minor brawl among the kids before a mother-figure stepped in and snatched the cash. Game over. It would be nice to think that she was there to settle the differences and distribute the money evenly to the kids, but sadly, there was no chance of that.

About 100 yards beyond the Vietnam immigration dock we pulled up to the Cambodian immigration dock to have our visa applications processed and then our passports stamped. It wasn’t long before I received the bad news; my passport had no blank pages so I would not be able to enter Cambodia. Fairly concerned at this development, I turned to our boat guide, who took me aside and told me to slip a U.S. $10 bill into the passport and hand it back to the immigration officer. He was seated at the head of a big table with about eight other uniformed officers around him. I handed my passport back to him, and said, “I believe there is a blank page,” and then to my horror, the $10 note fell out of the passport and onto the table in front of everyone. As I quickly scanned the crowd at the table, I breathed a sigh of relief. No reaction at all, it was easy to tell that this went on all day, every day. Within a few minutes my Cambodian visa was in my passport covering up entry and exit stamps from other countries, I was stamped into Cambodia, and we were on our way.

Cruising up the Mekong on what is turning into a magnificent day; Cambodia is noticeably less developed and populous along the river

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We made our way up to the roof of the boat for a while

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And just sat back and enjoyed the ride. What a great day and a great to start to New Year’™s Eve, although the sun pierced right through the SPF 30 and put a nice red tint on our faces that night

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We arrived in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, around 2:30 in the afternoon, way behind schedule, and had to run for a taxi to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. From Bangkok we had a connecting flight to Phuket, where we would be arriving around 8 in the evening, just enough time to get settled and get out to ring in the New Year. But once in the airport in Phnom Penh, all those plans fell by the wayside with our flight to Bangkok delayed by hours. So we got a taxi back to downtown Phnom Penh, booked into a hotel, relaxed for a while and then headed out for the countdown to the New Year. We found a pretty cool club in the Riverside nightlife district

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And before we knew it, it was 2006

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Not surprisingly, we missed our 9 a.m. flight to Bangkok the next morning. But the lovely Bangkok Air agent was happy to rebook us on the afternoon flight, and just like that, we were in our fourth country in eight days. We picked up an onward ticket to Phuket at Bangkok airport with ease, and arrived on the evening of the 1st, exhausted. But we were meeting Dave and Darwin from D.C. in Phuket, so there was to be no rest for the weary.

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