Starting in the South of Vietnam, we had roughly just over a week or so to get to HCMC (Saigon) to hook up with Stacey and Mark. They would be arriving on the 17th, so we had planned to get there a day or two earlier to get our bearings and sort out some accommodation for them.
The plan we formed was to move northwards in short journeys of maximum four hours. So the town’s of Hat Tien, Can Tho, and My Tho would be on the radar prior to us reaching Saigon.
Hat Tien was really quite pleasant for a border town, we found a lovely little hotel run by a Chinese family who made us feel very welcome. Next to the hotel was an open air fish market, and the town itself was right on a tributary of the Mekong with a large modern bridge spanning the river. The streets are full of vendors selling fresh vegetables, fruit, seafood etc, but apart from the colours, the scents of all the produce wafts through the air.
Our hotel room had cable tv, a fridge freezer, air con and a hot shower. So we bought baguettes, cheese triangles, a kilo of crisps and a crate of beer, locked our room door, and had a cosy night in watching “Bridge over the River Khai” followed by “Hellboy”. You know, I always kill myself laughing everytime it comes to the scene where “Red” and “Abe” get drunk and sing Barry Manilow’s “Can’t smile without You”. Michelle liked it too, first time we have watched any movies since Melaka, which was around early November last year!
We hired a motorbike, and spent the day taking in the countryside and made it to the Hon Chong grotto. It’s right by the sea, with impressive limestone karsts and islands jutting out from the sea.
Obviously not on the same scale as Halong Bay in the North, but it was good to get a feel of what we see when we eventually get there. We seemed to be the only tourist’s, and although the centre of attraction, we felt really welcome, and a couple of lads plucked up the courage, and asked for a photograph with us, as we both signed autographs on behalf of Ewan McGregor and Lara Croft 🙂
The days were ticking down slowly, we were getting really excited about meeting Stacey and Mark. We moved on, getting the bus to Can Tho, which turned out to be a 5 hour journey.
Food was gorgeous here. The Mekong restaurant became a favourite with delicious Vietnamese curry’s and rustic bowls of noodles, with bean sprouts, tasty chicken stock and a huge handful of fresh green exotic herbs that you add to your own particular taste. Coupled with the famous indigenous fermented fish sauce and maybe some soya sauce, and of course a few chopped fiery red chilli’s, and you then have a steaming bowl of taste sensation glory.
Along the riverfront in Can Tho, there was lovely landscaped gardens and a huge statue of Ho Chi Minn, which looked to be cast in solid brass on a huge cubed block of polished marble.
So it seems good. However. I don’t like to generalise, and I really don’t like to be negative, but I was soon having doubts about Vietnam. We always say that it’s the people who make things good or bad, and quite frankly, I was really becoming a bit weary with the people we had met so far, mainly the traders, where every purchase seemed to become a battle to try to negotiate a realistic price. In most Asian countries, you are expected to bargain for products you require – it’s just they way things are done. The difference here however, is that so far, the Vietnamese seem to stand their ground, and walk off in disgust if you are not prepared to accept the grossly inflated prices most seemed to be quoting. There is virtually no negotiation, and it can sometimes feel a bit unfriendly. I had a chat with a Vietnamese girl one night, and she told me that most people in “The West” earn on average $3000 a month and so can obviously afford to pay the prices demanded. I had to point out that back home we import a lot of our good’s from Asia, and that Primark, Asda and Tesco sell the same products that we were seeing eg. sandles, shorts, T-shirts etc and told her the prices we pay. I also explained that in the other Asian countries we had visited, the prices were nowhere near the inflated prices that most vendors were demanding. My points just did not seem to register with this girl, and to be honest, I was beginning to form the opinion that Vietnam as a country really holds some contempt for “The West”, and seemed to be mercilessly commercial and a bit greedy.
Like I said, it’s a generalisation and just my initial thoughts, and I hope I can retract this statement as we get further into Vietnam. It can sometimes be hard to understand the psyche of a nation, and it takes a bit of time. From what I’ve read, a lot of traveller’s see Vietnam as like Marmite, in other words, you either hate it or you absolutely love it.
Food is also an issue for me, as it always seems to be a hit or miss. When it is good, it can be gorgeous, but so far it has been more “miss” than “hit”. Rick Stein raved about Vietnamese food, but so far, for me, it has been nothing short of average, and pretty bland in all honesty. Well, that’s unless you want to be completely adventurous and have a go with some deep-fried tarantula, a rat, a snake, field mouse, or how about a wee hedgehog? Seriously, all is fair game here. The gecko pate though really needs some careful consideration. Michelle seems happier, but then again, seafood and shellfish is a major part of the diet around here, so maybe that’s where my problem really lies.
We took a walk one day, and ended up in the back street alleyways. All the people were hanging out with friends, sharing food and a beer or two. I always sometimes feel a wee bit uncomfortable doing this, but you have to push yourself if you want to see how the locals live. You virtually feel you might be walking into a high density, built up concrete ghetto. We were instantly getting a lot of attention, but with friendly “hello’s”, and as we walked past a group of teenage kid’s, we were immediately called back to come and join them as they sat in small plastic chairs surrounding a shin high plastic table. They seemed to be really enjoying themselves, laughing and joking, all of them sharing a large bottle of Asian Whisky. You always need to keep the antennae up, and be slightly on guard. One young lad picked up 2 clean glasses and immediately poured a small nip for us, and the group all laughed as they encouraged us to down this stuff, cheering as we returned our empty glasses to the table. Sometimes, you can get overly paranoid, but this was genuinely friendly. We were then surrounded with young toddler’s who had been looking curiously at us initially, very shy and keeping their distance. They seemed to gain a bit of confidence while we were there engaging with their older brothers and sisters, and seemed to warm to us. They would touch Michelle quickly then run back and giggle. So you see, I knew I was wrong, and you can never generalise.
One of the young lad’s enthusiastically requested to have his photograph taken with me.
As we thanked everyone and tried to move on, the teenage bunch seemed a bit disappointed we were leaving, but were all smiles and shouting “Goodbyes” as they waved us off. The young toddler’s followed us to the end of the alley, getting over excited, giving us a friendly send off. They stopped on an imaginary line – they had reached their border limit set by the parents. The parent’s had stopped their own little conversations, and were also waving and smiling. When you walked away, it felt like you were leaving a special thing behind.
We paid a visit to the local museum, mainly based around Vietnam history, and in particular the American/Vietnam War. It is quite strange to get the other side of the story, away from all the glorified American “Nam” War movies. These people have had a terrible time of it, and the statistics show that as a result – this is a young country, with a high percentage of the population under 30 years old – something like 65%.
My Tho was next, and on the bus we met a lovely young couple from Germany, Alex and Marysia. We had a good laugh together, and it turns out they are both heading to Australia later in the year, so it is a good possibility we may hook up again. The two of them continued onto HCMC, while we got off the bus in My Tho. As soon as we arrived, we were surrounded by “moto-drivers” offering to take us to our hotel on a motorbike. We have become quite confident on motorbikes now, so we both hopped on a bike each and headed off as our drivers zipped us through the traffic – Michelle leading up in front.
My Tho was very similar to Can Tho, but the good thing was that we were now only 2 to 3 hours from Saigon. Michelle was a bit adventurous and had eaten frog for the first time in her life that night. Only bat, rat, snake and field mouse to tick off the list then 😉 Look scrummy though?
When we returned to the hotel, we could not believe it when we bumped into a young bloke from Dundee! We had a few beers together, but unfortunately we were heading off in different directions in the morning.
Actually, I really mean fortunately, because only 2 sleeps to go, and the kids would be arriving in Saigon. 🙂