Free day in Ho Chi Minh City — Cambodia next!

May 4th 2019

Today was bitter sweet as we said goodbye to 1/2 of our Vietnam tour group and met 6 new members who would accompany the remaining 3 couples through Cambodia!

While some of our Intrepid group of 12 departed early, others remained until the afternoon and joined us as we explored the Independence/ Reunification Palace, the food market, and the Ben Thanh Market.

Some highlights of our day in Saigon

Jay, our fearless leader, had departed early to immediately lead a new tour. The morning felt strange and disjointed as members departed, yet we were still continuing on this journey through Asia. We had a 6 pm session to meet our new Cambodian guide and 6 new members of our tour group.

After breakfast we headed off to explore the Independence Palace. Our confidence walking and exploring around Vietnam has increased … We know how to safely cross hectic roads and avoid erosion on the sidewalks or oncoming motorcycles on sidewalks. We headed off in a small group.

We encountered some delightful Vietnamese students who enthusiastically practiced some basic conversational English with us. Andy convinced a local vendor to let him try his carrying pole (also called shoulder pole). This traditional method of carrying a load (in baskets) suspended by a yoke of wood or bamboo is more commonly seen used by females.

The Reunification/Independence Palace cost 40,000 VNDong each (About $2.30 CAN) to enter both the palace and the museum. Originally in 1868 a residence was built on this site for the French Governor-General which eventually became known as Norodom Palace.

After the French departed, Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem claimed the palace as his home. Apparently in 1962 the palace was bombed by his own Air Force in an assassination attempt. He had the palace rebuilt but the unpopular leader was killed by his troops in 1963.

The newly constructed building was named The Independence Palace and became home to South Vietnamese President, Nguyen Van Thieu until 1975 when communist tanks crashed through the gates.

Since this historic date, the palace (whether called the Independence Palace or Reunification Palace) was claimed by the Vietnamese communist government. The Palace is now a working government building, but when not in use, it’s also a historical museum.

Here is a video reflection of our final day in Vietnam.

Interesting areas inside the Palace include: Ground floor—meeting rooms, a room with phones which ring by importance; Upstairs—reception rooms. President’s living quarters with model boats, antlers, horse tails, and severed elephant’s feet;

2nd floor—games rooms, bar; Rooftop—cinema with massive projector, rooftop dance floor, helipad. Basement—telecommunications, bomb shelter, tunnels. In an adjacent building we watched historical videos and learned about timelines.

Time to explore the food fair then the famous Ben Thanh market. The choice is vast and extensive in each location. If you want cheap bargains… check out these spots. However, we didn’t stay long because I found the tight enclosed markets and aggressive vendors too much for me. J.J’s market in Bangkok is larger and vendors are much calmer.

Our remaining team of 6 saying goodbye to Anj and Rob

Sadly we said Tam biet to 6 of our tour group … Jess, Selina, Nell, Anne, Anj and Rob today. Tomorrow we depart Vietnam bright and early heading off to Cambodia with our new tour guide Sareth and 6 new team mates.

Cam o’n Vietnam! Thank you for opening our eyes to your amazing country!

Lush Mekong Delta! Tuk Tuks and Sampans to Elephant Ear Fish!

May 3rd 2019

Each day on this Intrepid tour of Vietnam has fulfilled our hopes and was packed with diverse opportunities to experience local activities and customs. Today, on our 9th and final full day together, was no exception!

Starting with a quick tour of Ho Chi Minh City, our main focus was to explore the Mekong Delta (Ben Tre); ride in sampans and tuk tuks; sample regional specialties from the famous river for lunch; and end the day at KOTO restaurant for our group farewell dinner. This blog post includes 3 short videos to reflect this amazing day!!

Our day started bright and early as Jay led us through a shortened version of the Ho Chi Minh city/Saigon tour. In this city of over 8.6 million the roads are hectic and noisy and motorcycles are common anywhere there is an open space!

In spite of this intensity, shear number of vehicles, and questionable safety of many loaded vehicles, we saw very few accidents during our time in this amazing country.

Ho Chi Minh City (also called Saigon by many locals) is the most populated city in Vietnam and has a vibe of development, evolution, commerce and culture.

The city has a complex history and the strong French influence from the past is noted in its architecture and French colonial landmarks, including Notre-Dame Cathedral. This majestic cathedral was constructed of materials imported from France. The gardens were colourful and well manicured, and appreciated by a multitude of birds and toddlers!

The yellow 19th Century Post Office also reflects this French connection. Walk inside to view the beautiful arched ceilings and “step into the past” red phone booths!

Jay presented a famous photo of a helicopter perched on the rooftop of a CIA’s apartment building as Americans evacuated the city on the final day of the American/Vietnamese war. The photo was taken by photojournalist Hugh van Es on April 29th 1975. This building was formerly called the Pittman Apartments. This is not a tourist site, but for further information on this event, here is an interesting blog site.

The building formerly known as the Pittman Apartments is located at 22 Ly Tu Trong St in Saigon’s District 1. https://www.rustycompass.com/blog/visiting-saigons-historic-rooftop-symbol-of-the-end-of-the-vietnam-war-295/#.XU4rnboTGEc

We drove by the Reunification Palace which some of us plan to explore tomorrow on our extra day in Ho Chi Minh City.

Heading out of the city, we boarded a boat for Ben Tre. Ben Tre is the capital city of the province of Ben Tre located in the southwestern part of the Mekong Delta, about 90km west of HCM City and is famous for its coconut products.

The Mekong River is a massive water system fundamentally necessary for the survival of the Vietnamese people. Economic advantage vs environmental vision is always a balancing act.

 

This video reflects Part #1 of our wonderful day exploring Ho Chi Minh City then our trip up the river in the fascinating Mekong Delta.

The low lying boats are close to overflowing with heavily loaded sand from the river bottom. Massive amounts of the silt from the natural base of the river is being excavated and sold. I couldn’t help pondering what effect will this have to the future of the Mekong Delta?

Other vessels are loaded with coconuts or produce from the Delta. Some boats are fishing vessels often accompanied with interesting living quarters on the back. Vessels have eyes painted on the front by their owners. According to legend, the custom of decorating  Vietnamese fishing boats with a pair of eyes is credited to Lac Long Quan, who believed this practice would scare off sea monsters.

Although we didn’t see any floating markets, pagodas, or Buddhist Temples today, we had an amazing adventure touring the coconut gardens and mangrove forests around Ben Tre. Clearly you need more than 1 day to explore this magnificent and abundant ‘rice bowl’ Delta!

Our modes of transportation were tuk tuks on a narrow cement roadway through the villages and coconut plantations, then sampans meandering through mangrove canals.

As we toured through the villages at Ben Tre the importance of coconut trees to these rural villagers’ livelihoods became blatantly evident.

We stopped at various locations to witness hard working locals (mainly women) manipulating palm leaves to create brooms (also used for roofing materials and baskets); utilizing the fibre from coconut husks to create mats and handicrafts; and extracting the water and milk from coconuts to create candy and delicious food products.

This video #2 reflects much of our experience traveling around villages in Ben Tre.

 

Ben Tre is famous for its delicious variety of coconut dishes in addition to specialty fruit, green Xiem coconuts, Mo Cay candy, coconut tree items, and handicrafts. Although many locals live off the land in similar ways to generations proceeding them, there is a growing push to diversify and expand economic options in this area.

I discovered some very informative websites about the Ben Tre economy and exports. I have attached these links particularly the Vietnam Investment Review.

“One of the area’s most famous products is keo dua (coconut candy), a favorite treat of southerners, closely followed by banana candy. The two traditional candies originated in Ben Tre.”

https://www.vir.com.vn/ben-tre-vietnams-coconut-kingdom-59087.html

“Only in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre can you find the Green Xiem coconut. It’s so special that it was recently granted a certificate of Geographical Indication.”

“Some of the province’s unique fruit specialties include milky yellow-fleshed and stoneless durians, green-skinned pomelos, Cai Mon mangosteens, high-yield “Four Season” mangos, and special Mo Cay oranges.”

We tried mangosteens with Jay at a market and rambutans on the boat. Although the exteriors are brightly coloured, the fruit inside is delicious. We also saw durians and pomelos growing on trees during our walks.

http://coconutvietnam.com.vn/news/use-the-8-great-part-of-the-coconut-tree/250.html 

During our excursion in the sampans we meandered through the canals bordered by mangrove and coconut trees. Our group was divided into 3 sampans  (small rowing boats) with a local gently maneuvering us through the water. We all wore the traditional conical hats called non la (leaf hats). They were light and cool as they protected us from another day of 38+ temperatures. Our guide even sang traditional Vietnamese songs as he softly directed our boat, until his cell phone rang!

We stopped at a lovely restaurant/boarding location on the return trip from Ben Tre back to HCM City. At this location we consumed a vast range of foods specific to the Mekong delta area. Possibly the most intriguing menu item was the Elephant Ear Fish which were presented so uniquely they were the focus of many photos.

Fresh coconut water…Bird of Paradise flowers…Delicious local food… Fascinating tours and scenery. I would have loved spending additional time exploring the Mekong Delta area!

During the bus trip back to Ho Chi Minh City, we saw many more motorcycles with unique loads–even one pulling a huge live pig! It was raining and the ponchos were out!

In Vietnam most garbage is burned, but there are roadside vendors recycling nearly anything you could imagine. I have included a few photos of some specialty metal being recycled in these roadside stores.

In video #3 more of Ben Tre is illustrated plus our return trip on the Mekong River, back to Ho Chi Minh City, and our final dinner together as Jay’s “Tiger Team”at KOTO restaurant.

 

Jay shared a heart warming ‘Thank you’ speech on the bus as we returned to Ho Chi Minh City and I responded on behalf of our tour group.

This was a very unique, cohesive, adventurous group of individuals from England, Australia, Canada, and Vietnam. Most of us are still keeping contact with one another. Thank you to each of you for sharing your laughs, stories, photos, energy, and positive attitudes. In addition, Intrepid is extremely lucky to have such a knowledgeable, caring, efficient ambassador of fascinating Vietnam.

KOTO restaurant is run by an organisation dedicated to developing the hospitality careers of disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.

Jay’s final gift to us was a personal clay whistle of our animal sign according to the Chinese New Year. We had fun and made quite a racket attempting to create a melody with them. Thanks Jay! You will always be in our hearts and memories.

The next blog post will include: our sad goodbyes to 6/12 of our tour group, further exploration Ho Chi Minh City, and meeting 6 new tour members and a new guide as we make the transition from Vietnam to Cambodia.

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon– Somber Past and Optimistic Future!

May 2nd 2019

The purpose of today’s adventure on our Intrepid tour was more serious than on previous days. Vietnam is incredibly populated (over 97 million people), for its geographical area. On Sunday, August 4, 2019, the United Nations estimated that Vietnamese population is equivalent to 1.26% of the total world population. https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/vietnam-population/

During our 9 days in Vietnam, we have witnessed hard working, serious people who adapt to their situations and environments and have diverse talents. Each day has been a new adventure on our Intrepid group tour.

Today’s agenda was to depart from Da Nang airport and fly to Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Our tour of the most populated city in Vietnam (over 8.6 million people according to most sources–although 13 million was also quoted?), was postponed due to plane delays and traffic jams. However, we would be expanding our knowledge about Vietnam/American war history at the War Remnants museum and during the Cu Chi Tunnels tour.  This is not my favorite topic…but knowledge brings new understanding.

We departed from our hotel in lovely Hoi An at 5:30 a.m. to drive to Da Nang airport.

I was lucky to gain a window seat as the aerial views during the journey were fascinating and really told a story about the geography, land use, and importance of the mighty rivers between Da Nang (Han River) area

and the (Saigon River) metropolis of Ho Chi Minh city.

The people in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) seemed to have a more entrepreneurial outlook and dressed more western style than Vietnamese locals from the north and central regions. This was evident from the moment we exited the plane at the Ho Chi Minh airport.

Early in our tour we were informed by our tour guide that there are over 45 million scooters/motorcycles in a population of 97 million Vietnamese people. This was clearly evident here!

Foreigners are not permitted to drive in this country. Unlike Thailand and Cambodia, in Vietnam you drive on the right side of the road (like North America)–well at least that’s the plan!

Sidewalks and the opposing traffic lanes are also fair game here. Each day of travelling in the bus was a new experience in terms of eye opening limits. The record for a family transported on one scooter was 10 members! The loads and items we observed being transported, never ceased to entertain and shock me!

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) had a strong French influence in the past and is known for its French colonial landmarks, including Notre-Dame Cathedral, made entirely of materials imported from France, and the 19th-century Central Post Office. Photos of French architecture will be displayed on the next blog post as we saw these buildings on our city tour tomorrow.

Meanwhile… The next stop today was the War Remnants Museum (formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes). The brutality of war expressed in a new and different point of view with graphic photos and artifacts was deeply disturbing.

After viewing the effects of Agent Orange and meeting survivors, I was too horrified to see further displays. This museum was a strong reminder why we must communicate, compromise, respect one another and avoid war!

This short video mainly shows war vehicles and paraphernalia displayed around the exterior grounds of the museum … I did not wish to share visually disturbing images.

After checking into our new hotel –Hoang Phu Gia Hotel on Bui Thi Xuan St, 7 members of our group were off again to experience more Vietnamese war history and view the Cu Chi Tunnels. I enjoyed the scenery as we drove past rubber tree plantations and different rural landscapes 47 km north west of Ho Chi Minh City.

The Cu Chi Tunnels, are located about 1 and one-half hours away. They are part of a 250 km maze of connecting tunnels and chambers below the city.

These famous tunnels took over 25 years to construct and were started in the late 1940’s. We were informed the tunnel network was utilized successfully by Viet Cong (VC) to control a large rural area during the “American” war.

There are 2 main areas of Cu Chi Tunnels which are open to public viewing–Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. Our tour guide took us to the Ben Dinh site.

Here is a video of this frightening historical reality.

Introductory maps showing the locations and the layers of tunnels. Some were several stories deep and included living quarters and field hospitals in addition to multiple traps. It’s truly unbelievable to fathom this scary existence forced necessary to survival during these extreme war circumstances.

The Ben Dinh site included: a section which illustrated types of death traps for people; tiny underground hiding holes; an actual 50 m long section of original tunnel; as well as outdoor displays; a gift shop and an area where a man sold sandals made from recycled tires; and an optional activity where you could pay to operate and fire machine guns!

The bursts of fire exploding from this “activity” resonated throughout the wooded trails making this experience feel even more real and unsettling! None of our group chose to partake in this option!

Out of the 7 of us on this tour, no women selected to try fitting into the tiny underground hiding holes or crawling along the actual underground tunnel passages. These tunnels are the original size. The other location at Ben Duoc has enlarged their tunnels for tourist access.

Although the GIF showing the underground hiding area might seem amusing, one man on our tour closed the camouflaged cover over his head longer than others were comfortable with, and required assistance to be pulled out of the tiny opening. What horrifying conditions must have existed to precipitate humans to hide in these holes!

All three men on our tour also selected to crawl through the entire 50m section of actual Chu Chi tunnels. They all entered the tunnel with smiles and waves, but re-emerged moving a bit more slowly!

Imagine living and moving underground this way for extended periods of time!

Today was a day of pushing my comfort zone levels and learning about the atrocities of war. Tomorrow I’m so thrilled to be touring Ho Chi Minh city and exploring the lush Mekong Delta!