Vietnam travel -Mekong Delta daytrip

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On my last full day in Ho Chi Minh City, I visited the Mekong Delta on a daytrip. The mighty Mekong is Southeast Asia’s biggest river, running through several countries until it exits into the sea in southern Vietnam in the Mekong Delta.

The tour was cheap, less than US$20 and included transport, trips to a temple and then an island on the delta, activities on said island, and a lunch. It went rather well, and I unexpectedly ended up meeting 3 travel friends from the mainland. The last part of the tour had to be curtailed due to rough waters which I didn’t escape unscathed, as I and another guy got splashed by the brown river water on our boat on the way back.

On the morning, I went and boarded the tourbus outside the tour agency I’d booked the trip with on Pham Ngu Lao Street. The bus then went to pick up other people at their hotels, concluding with a bunch of Indian 50-,60-somethings from Malaysia. They took a while to get on, both because their party was quite numerous and some of them weren’t exactly in the best of shape. They were however in very good spirits and I couldn’t help being amused at the camaraderie and the cheerfulness of these oldsters. At one point, I  talked to one of them and she joked apologetically about their health ailments regarding bad knees and backs etc. It wasn’t a big deal.

The first stop was at a temple. This complex had several large Buddhas- one sitting, one lying sideways, and one standing up, and was a refuge for locals during old times when bandits or pirates used to attack. Then we made a quick restroom stop at the fanciest highway “rest stop” I’ve ever been to. It was like a small resort with thatched roof-covered restaurant and wooden lodges, and nicely-maintained lawn and garden.
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We finally reached the Mekong Delta, arriving at the city of My Tho, the largest in the Delta area. The Mekong was wide and brown with forested islands in the middle, not exactly the grand spectacle I’d expected, but still big nonetheless. On both sides, there were one-story buildings and in the horizon, a large suspension bridge spanned the river. Colorful fishing boats with pointed prows and dotted eyes were moored alongside the shore and we passed a few on the water. We got onto a boat and moved on to an island in the river.
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I have to mention our guide. An articulate and confident guy who spoke good English, as did many Vietnamese guides and hotel staff, and was quick to make jokes and laugh out loud. Initially I thought he seemed a bit too laidback and wasn’t really into his job, but he turned out to be quite cool.

As we approached our destination, he told us about the importance of coconut on the place. Apparently the settlement was started by some crazy guy who worshiped coconut. On that island, “everything is coconut, eat coconut, pray to coconut, get married using coconut, hehehe!” our guide blurted out.

Once on the island, we visited a coconut candy workshop, then a honey workshop and even took a ride on carts pulled by small horses through a neighborhood. On the boat ride, I’d heard some guys speaking what sounded like Mandarin. After a while, I asked one of them if they were from China and he said yes. They were easygoing and younger guys, and just like me, they’d all quit their jobs and were taking some time to explore SE Asia, having made their way down from Hanoi too. We hung together during the trip, and though we parted when we returned to HCMC, it wasn’t the last we would meet.

At the coconut candy workshop, our guide personally demonstrated how to make the candy- first he broke a coconut on a stake, then put the broken pieces into a machine that grated it into tiny pieces, then put them into another machine that formed them into a hardened blocks, which were then boiled in a giant metal cauldron (and presumably mixed with sugar or other ingredients). Finally the hardened mixture was laid out into long slabs for workers to break into square pieces and package them. The workers did this on a big table at the side while we all milled around. Besides coconut candy, there was snake wine on sale, which consisted of wine mixed with real snakes or scorpions put inside for a certain period of time (you see this in many restaurants in China too). We got to try small shots.
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We moved from place to place within the island via boat, moving through the swamp-like channels. Lunch was at a restaurant nearby, on which there was a crocodile farm on the premises. There was a stream (not over the crocodiles) traversed by a narrow bamboo bridge that was the flimsiest one I’d ever crossed on. There was also an arena for weddings which had lots of dragon-entwined pillars and an altar.
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At another stop (I can’t remember which), the guide brought out an actual python and let us all take photos of it. I think it was the first time I’d held such a big snake and there were a few nervy moments when the snake kept moving its head towards my face.
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Not me, but one of my new Chinese travel pals, and not his daughter either, she was with a Vietnamese family on the tour.

We ended at an open-air teahouse where we had tea and fruit, and were entertained by a troupe of female singers, including a little girl who did a cute song-and-dance, accompanied by a guy playing a Vietnamese instrument. There was supposed to be a boat ride, but by this time rain was falling and the water was getting a bit choppy so that part of the itinerary was curtailed.
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On the way back, our guide gave us a little speech, where he thanked us for coming and expressed his optimistic patriotism, “In five years’ time, Vietnam will be better and we’ll be number one! Sorry, Thailand!”

The guide came and talked to us for a bit, saying he used to be an engineer and then asking me what I did. When I said I wanted to work in a newspaper, he gave a sympathetic smile and said how in Vietnam, newspapers were fading away. A sad reminder that traditional media’s decline wasn’t just happening in the West.

The trip to the Mekong Delta at My Tho was quite pleasant. For a more full-on Delta experience, you can go on further to other places like Ben Tre, where you can visit sites of Vietnam War battles and even spend a full day or two.

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Huế’s imperial tombs

Going back to my Vietnam trip last year, I’ve still got a few places to post about, such as Huế’s imperial tombs.

Huế is famous for being the capital of Vietnam for almost 150 years under the Nguyen Dynasty until 1945. Yet it was during that time when Vietnam slowly became taken over by the French and absorbed into their colonial holdings. Hue was also a main battleground during the Tet Offensive during Vietnam War, which caused a lot of damage including to the Imperial City, the palace of the emperor.

While the Imperial City is probably Huế’s most famous landmark, the imperial tombs are also well-known. I visited three of them on a day tour, along with the Thiên Mụ Pagoda. The tombs were the Minh Mạng, Khải Định, and Tự Đức. The tombs were all located outside the city, amid forest but in clean and impressive compounds. Two of them were in scenic outdoor settings, while one was inside a stone building. The outdoor compounds were really pleasant and featured wide open space, lakes, and forest, and it seemed. The buildings were a bit worn but had a historic and dignified aura befitting the resting place of emperors.

First, the tour went to Thiên Mụ Pagoda. Located on a small hill overlooking the Perfume River (which also runs through the city), the 7-story pagoda is attractive, but the most interesting aspect of it is the car on display on the grounds, which was driven by a monk to Saigon who protested the South Vietnamese government’s policies by burning himself to death. The two photos below show the view of the Perfume River and the pagoda. The photo of the car is far below near the end.

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Minh Mang tomb
This is located in a large, pleasant open-air compound with a lake, temples and pavilions. Minh Mang reigned from 1820 to 1841, and he was known for his opposition to the French and to Christian missionaries. He rebuffed contact from the US and other Western nations, and had an isolationist approach to international relations. However, his rule was regarded as fair and effective.
The actual tomb is located in a crypt protected by walls that visitors can’t pass. There were a series of animal and official statues, that represent guardians which accompany the emperor in the afterlife. This is similar to Chinese imperial tombs, such as the Ming tomb in Nanjing, that also feature spirit ways with statues of animals and officials. The Vietnamese statues are not as numerous, and flank both sides of a wide walkway leading up to a pavilion (see the last photo below for this tomb) whereas the Chinese pathways flanked by statues are narrower and longer.

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Khải Định tomb
This emperor ruled during the 20th century from 1916-1925 so his tomb complex incorporates both Vietnamese and French designs. The interior of the complex is incredibly opulent though in reality he wasn’t a very powerful or notable emperor. Unlike the other two I visited, this tomb is inside one large building overlooking a hill with no gardens or lake.
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Tự Đức tomb
This one had a small attractive lake as well as a pavilion and a broad walkway flanked by animal and imperial official statues. Tu Duc reigned from 1848-1883, quite a long time, but war with the French and internal rebellions weakened his reign to the point that he agreed to give southern Vietnam to the French, from which Vietnam began to lose its sovereignty and become a French possession.

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Car driven by monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon to protest the government by setting himself on fire and committing suicide.
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Woman making incense at a small workshop we stopped by during the tour.

Ho Chi Minh City- day 2 photo roundup

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Side view of Notre Dame Cathedral.

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US vehicles and firepower outside the War Remnant Museum.

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The troop strength of the US, South Vietnam and its allies during the war.
I’m surprised to see that Thailand and the Philippines contributed troops. The latter was wise to send a few and to withdraw after 1969. The South Koreans were staunch allies, if not a bit foolish, keeping their numbers up throughout the war.

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Tortured and killed political prisoners in South Vietnamese jails.

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US casualties, bombs dropped,  and costs in the Vietnam War compared to World War I and II.

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The ubiquitous Bell Huey UH-1, seen in every single movie and TV show about the Vietnam War. Even the pretty girl can’t resist getting up close.

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Inside the Saigon Central Post Office. The map on top is of HCMC (Saigon) in the 19th century.

Ho Chi Minh City- the second full day- part 2

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Continuing from part 1 of my second day in Ho Chi Minh City, I started out walking to the HCMC museum, formerly the Revolution Museum. Afterwards on the way to the War Remnants Museum, I passed one of the most famous sights from the Vietnam War- the Reunification Palace. The iconic photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through its gates in 1975, when it was the office of South Vietnam’s president, symbolized Saigon’s fall. Being lunchtime, it was closed so I could only look from outside but I wasn’t interested in visiting it. I didn’t find it particularly attractive either, being a rectangular five-storey building with a large round lawn in front of it, though there is a row of palm trees on its roof.
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When I arrived at the military museum, it was closing for lunch, so I had two free hours. This is a characteristic of many museums as well as the Reunification Palace in Vietnam, which close at around 11.30 for lunch, during which all visitors have to leave. I found it kind of amusing – the concept of a public place closing for lunch, though if I was an employee, I’d probably be very glad. I went for lunch at a nearby noodle restaurant where I had a decent bowl of noodles and was charged a small amount for the sanitary napkin, something I’ve experienced in Beijing too.

Then I walked to Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral (in the photo at the top of this page), which was probably just as elegant as its namesake in Paris. From the back it had a rounded shape due to several round compartments, then from along the side it switched to a long form with a main central arched doorway. Its front featured two bell towers with sharp rooftops flanking the much-shorter center. The entire cathedral was red, except the slightly brown corners, giving it a unique look. Needless, it was much more attractive than the cathedral in Hanoi, one of the few things about HCMC I liked more than the capital. There was even a photo shoot going on with a beautiful woman dressed in a white traditional ao-dai surrounded by a few dozen pigeons.

Opposite the street, I noticed a three-story pink colonial building. Entering it, I realized it was a post office, probably the nicest one I’d ever been to. It was like stepping back into time. The Saigon Central Post Office interior was a fully functioning post office but it had been preserved to retain its oldtime feel with wooden panels and counters. The inside was very spacious and elegant with a high arched ceiling. At the end, a portrait of Uncle Ho, looking very dignified with white mustache and goatee, looked over the entire place. At the sides near the front were wooden enclosed ATM booths, with analog clocks showing the time in different parts of the world. There were also souvenir stores where I bought postcards to mail right afterwards.
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I returned to the War Remnants Museum and it was open again. There were a good number of visitors, especially foreigners, unlike every other museum I’d visited in Vietnam including even the military museum in Hanoi. The outside of the museum was like a dreamland for military enthusiasts. There were quite a number of impressive military machines , mainly captured from the Americans including jet fighters, Chinook helicopter, tanks, and artillery such as the “King of the battlefield” – the giant M107 cannon mounted on tracks. There’s even a flamethrower minitank and a mini-bulldozer used for clearing mines, which I saw in a ‘Nam comic, a former Marvel series about the Vietnam War.

At the side was a recreated section of the Con Dao island prisons, built by the French and later used by the South Vietnamese government to imprison suspected Communist sympathizers. It featured dungeons and “tiger cages”- cages with barbed wire that housed Vietnamese prisoners who could only stoop inside. There were chilling photos of prisoners showing their injuries after being tortured and imprisoned – missing teeth, amputated limbs or badly bent arms and legs- and some actual torture equipment.

The museum was a 3-storey rectangular block that somewhat resembled a giant bunker. Unlike Hanoi’s military museum, this museum almost fully focuses on the Vietnam War. The first floor featured easygoing material like propaganda posters and photos of rallies around the world supporting the Vietnamese and slamming the US. A good amount of these rallies were in Communist countries like Cuba and Eastern Europe, but a few were in Western nations as well, which was surprising. I knew there were anti-Vietnam War rallies in the US, but not in other Western nations.

The upstairs featured more sobering sights. There was an impressive photo collection of the war from various journalists of US soldiers, Vietnamese rebels, and civilians, ranging from depicting US soldiers on a regular patrol to torture of captured Vietnamese, fleeing civilians, and killed US soldiers.
One section was about the use of chemical weapons by the US, including horrendous photos of disfigured victims, which still has an effect to this day. One display was a letter written  by a Vietnamese chemical weapon victim to US President Barack Obama urging him to take action to resolve the lingering chemical weapons presence. Meanwhile, captured American heavy weapons were on display, including rifles, machine guns, mortars, bazookas, and even mines.
While again basically all the information and exhibits portrayed the US as responsible for causing all the damage and deaths, it’s not hard when viewing data such as that more bombs were dropped in Vietnam by the US than during World War II or viewing the photos of victims of chemical attacks to feel sympathetic and even admiringly about Vietnam, at least for me. However I have to say there wasn’t any menacing or belligerent tone to the information and displays, but a matter-of-fact and conciliatory one.

The museum definitely lived up to its must-visit reputation. I definitely recommend it if you visit HCMC, whatever your stance about the war.

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The inside of the post office with a portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging on top at the back.
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Back of Notre Dame Cathedral.
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The mighty “King of the Battlefield” – self-propelled M107 175mm gun.
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Two of the “tiger cages” used to hold political prisoners outdoors.

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Captured Viet Cong being hung upside down for questioning.
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Castro and Cuba solidarity for Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City- the second full day- part 1

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For my second day in HCMC, it was time to experience the city all by myself after having had a good tour with Nam from Saigon Hotpot the previous day. My plan was to go to the Revolution Museum, the military museum (War Remnants), and take in some colonial buildings in the area. I was particularly eager to visit the War Remnants Museum, which was described as one of HCMC’s best sights in many sites and articles online.

I set off from my hotel, passing through the large park right opposite all the hotels and restaurants along Pham Ngu Lao. It featured a large, lotus-filled pond and walkways framed by palms and other tall trees. It was quite pleasant and wouldn’t be the last park I’d walk through in HCMC, a big contrast with Taipei where parks are small, few, and often had more concrete than trees and grass.

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First, I went to the Revolution Museum, which focused on Ho Chi Minh and the revolution against the French which ended with Vietnam’s victory in the 1950s. Housed in a elegant gray colonial mansion, as many Vietnamese museums are, the museum’s name was changed to the City Museum, possibly reflecting a move to tone down the militarism and expand the museum’s scope. It also makes sense to have a museum for the city itself. I also found out recently via a website this was the former residence of the French Governor and the final home of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt strongman who eventually died in a coup.
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The city part of the museum consisted of a few ancient artifacts found in Saigon, which had been formed in 1698, and a range of cultural objects including wedding clothes, instruments and even ancient Vietnamese coins. The revolution part featured photos, letters, weapons, uniforms, and even a pot and pipe that had been used by revolutionaries during the revolution. The displays were quite impressive, full-size human mannequins making speeches on stage or defiantly wielding weapons. One of the main attractions was a bicycle, fitted out with giant bags piled atop it and looking as if it had just been brought in from service on the Ho Chi Minh trail, when the North Vietnamese moved supplies on foot and on bikes through jungle and hills to their allies down south. There was a lot of serious firepower on display too such as rocket propelled grenade launchers, grenades, and machine guns, and even the humble pistol. On the ground floor, there’s a stairway at the side that leads down to an underground shelter that had been built by Ngo Dinh Diem.

There weren’t many people, especially locals at the museum. Nam had told me that not many Vietnamese found this museum interesting, which wasn’t surprising given that the museum was mostly propaganda, promoting the heroism and glory of the Communist party. Around the building were several Vietnam War-era fighter planes, tanks, and artillery pieces, another common feature of Vietnamese museums.

What was annoying though was being hassled by drivers offering city tours on the outside, one of whom took it upon himself to appoint himself as my driver and told me he’d wait for me when I came back out so he could take me on a tour. When I came out about one hour later, the damn guy was actually there though thankfully he left me along when I ignored him. As I walked to the War Remnants museum, I encountered more of these pushy drivers. It was really silly since I was literally minutes away from the place’s sights so there was absolutely no reason I’d want a driver.

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F-5 fighter jet, an American-made airplane, which was flown by a North Vietnamese agent in the South Vietnamese air force to bomb the Reunification Palace (when it was the office of the South’s president). That explains why it is in North Vietnamese colors.
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Vietnamese theater costume, which looks similar to Chinese Beijing Opera costumes.

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Hotel with a rather interesting and nice design.
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Another park in HCMC near the HCMC museum.
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Serious firepower in the HCMC museum.

Ho Chi Minh City at night

Pham Ngu Lao St is HCMC’s backpacker/tourist district, supposedly the local equivalent of Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. Hopefully Pham Ngu Lao never becomes as loud, seedy or notorious. While it’s great that hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies fill Pham Ngu Lao, one of the best things is that a major market and some fine historical buildings are just minutes away.

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Ben Thanh Market is HCMC’s biggest market and during the day it’s filled with vendors selling clothes, coffee, food, and souvenirs. At night the building closes and a night market forms outside on both sides, with mostly clothes and souvenir vendors catering to tourists. Especially notable are the many “brandname” backpacks on sale for amazingly low prices. North Face is a very popular one, and at first glance can seem genuine (I’ll have more on this later). Another notable thing is how persistent the female vendors can be in trying to get you to buy something. During the day, I went inside Ben Thanh Market and while walking through the narrow lanes in between all the stalls, female vendors constantly called out while a few even touched my arm with slight caresses. It felt nice, but of course not everyone might feel that way. At night, the vendors may not be as touchy-feely, but they will call out prices, lower it, then even pull up a calculator and tell you to name your price. As a last resort, some women will block you from leaving their stall while looking at you with sad puppydog eyes while begging you to buy – “please, pleeeease buy from me. If you don’t buy, I won’t let you go.”

Looking back, it seems so comical and flattering, but at times it was a bit too much.

On the flipside, I had a male vendor ridicule me in Vietnamese to his fellow vendors after I asked him about some magnets and then walked away without buying. He spoke some Vietnamese in what sounded like a mocking tone and his fellows burst out laughing.

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Besides the market, if you continue walking along the main road you will hit a really fancy part of town where you can check out the City Hall and Saigon Opera House, both colonial buildings. The City Hall is very nice and you can walk right up to it, situated at the end of a driveway with luxury brandname stores on both sides. The Saigon Opera House has an arched doorway and a long rectangular shape, which I didn’t see properly since it was in the night. There’s also the Hotel Continental Saigon, a hotel famous for its role during the Vietnam War for being the haunt of American journalists.

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Ho Chi Minh City’s City Hall

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Saigon Opera House

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Back to the market, when you cross the street to an open space and face a roundabout with a statue of a man on a horse (14th century Vietnamese hero General Tran Nguyen Han), there’s a fine view (the first photo in this post) of the Bitexco Financial Tower, Vietnam’s tallest skyscraper. Shaped like a leaf, or a dagger, and lit up at night, it’s a very nice sight It’s also a reminder of HCMC’s economic vitality and how Vietnam is a nation in flux, communist but following a similar path as China.

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