Southern Vietnam and the Mekong River
Tom and I visited Vietnam three times: 2008, 2012 and 2017. On our first trip, the itinerary was set by the tour company, Intrepid Travel (https://intrepidtravel.com ). While this company did an excellent job, we wanted to explore the country on our own, visiting places beyond the tourist route. Those of you who know Tom already understand how he loves to plan – anything. Once we decide our route, he definitely takes the planning lead. I help as needed.
As we traveled, I wrote three sets of journal posts on a website called TravelBlog https://www.travelblog.org/ . You can find details of our trips there. As described in my last post and after much dithering, I decided to combine my notes from our trips and describe our adventures by geographical area. This is my first attempt: Saigon and southern Vietnam, including the Mekong Delta. We fell in love with the area, so spent time there on all three trips. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) might be called Vietnam’s business city, while Hanoi in the north is political. Saigon city is within the province now called HCMC, so you can call the city either name. No one seems to care.
On our second and third times in Saigon, we stayed in the original Beautiful Saigon Hotel (https://beautifulsaigonhotel.com/beautiful-saigon-hotel) , right in the middle of District 1, the “Backpacker District”. As you can see above, it's a tiny hotel, and they quickly came to know us -- and looked after us well. By our fourth stay, we were family. District 1 is full of small two and three-star hotels, little restaurants, bars, and lots of people. It’s noisy and nowhere near as nice as the commercial area with banks and name hotels, but it's much more fun. We slept with ear plugs, by the way.
Our favorite “hang out” was a corner bar called Crazy Buffalo, located at 212 Đề Thám, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, where we would sit at a sidewalk table, nurse a beer or wine and watch the show walk by.
On our first (2008) trip, we visited the expected tourist places and learned about the Vietnam (or American) war and the people of southern Vietnam.
The Cu Chi tunnels, dug by the North Vietnamese (Viet Cong) just north of Saigon. It’s an amazing layered web of tiny tunnels built for tiny people with escape holes and hidden routes that stretched hundreds of square kilometers and made it almost impossible for the US to destroy the Viet Cong supply lines and communications. The site has many bomb craters, which we were told were from B-52s. We saw many booby traps, and I crawled through some of the tunnels. They're still maintained and are one-and-a-half times larger than they were during the war. Tom stayed out, which was smart, as the tunnel kept getting smaller and I had to crawl on my hands and knees through the last parts. NOT a place for anyone who has broad shoulders, a big belly or problems with tight places underground. I crawled behind an average size American man and his son, and about three-quarters of the way through, the man said, "I don't like this. Let's go back." His son said, "Dad, there's no going back. You can't turn around."
The "Reunification Palace," the old center of South Vietnam's government before and during what the Vietnamese call "The American War". Built by the French, it’s now a museum, though some of the public rooms are still used for state occasions. It has 1960s decor, with beautiful hand-carved wood and embroidered silk upholstery. Displayed outside the building but inside the gates are an American F-5 and the tanks that were the first to breach the walls around the palace in 1975. We also visited the War Remnants Museum, which has many photos and US equipment from the war, but it was pretty tough for Tom, so we left soon after we arrived.
In 2012, we did a lot of walking, measuring the city with our feet. We’ve learned to get out early and return “home” for an afternoon siesta in the hotel’s air conditioning. The Beautiful Saigon Hotel was exactly the right place to stay – we walked to the Ben Thanh Market, coffee shops, restaurants, and Chinatown. The Market is located at Đ. Lê Lợi, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000. It's at least the size of a city block and is crammed with anything you could possibly want to buy. It's been there, right at the center of District 1, since the 17th century. Walking to the market also gives you the chance to learn to navigate the traffic, as it's at the intersection of four busy streets. Sorry, but it's impossible to take a good picture of the place. Maybe with a drone --
We took a hydrofoil down to an island south of Saigon called Vung Tau. It's a beach town mostly for Vietnamese. On a Tuesday, it was mostly empty, so we enjoyed the beach and the cool breezes.
Food in southern Vietnam is wonderful. The Beautiful Saigon Hotel has a small breakfast room where you can get coffee, luscious fruit, and Vietnamese bread. Side note: since Vietnam was occupied for so long by the French, Vietnamese bread is like a small French baguette, but with rice as well as wheat flour. The loaves are light and crunchy and when your break your little loaf, crumbs fly everywhere. Lunch was usually pho, a beef broth with rice noodles, basil leaves, onions, bean sprouts and any spices you decide to add. Cilantro haters will need to ask for their pho without it. It's a southern specialty, and though Hanoi has its own version, we prefer southern pho. Dinner was variations on vegetables and shrimp or fish. Beer is available, of course, but I love the huge variety of fresh fruit juices on every menu. One day I had orange and strawberry juice layered in a tall glass, then later had a mixture of apple, carrot and fresh ginger.
One very hot day, we walked over to the Rex Hotel so that we could sit in the rooftop bar and drink overpriced lemonade. Folks our age remember the fifth floor rooftop bar as a hangout for journalists and home of the American military command’s daily war news conferences. They were called the “five o’clock follies” by the reporters who even then wondered about the appropriateness of daily war briefings in a hotel’s outdoor restaurant/bar. Sound familiar?
The Mekong River is Asia’s international river, starting in Tibet and flowing through China’s Yunnan province, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before it gets to Vietnam. Issues of water conservation, pollution, and the environmental impacts of dams are the same here as on the Rio Grande or Colorado in the States. South of Saigon, the river breaks into a delta, much like the Mississippi.
A working river, the Mekong carries everything from huge barges to tourist
boats to small boats and canoes carrying produce, fish and people.
We learned that many of the locally-made boats have eyes to watch the river ahead for dangers like tree limbs, crocodiles, and other boats. Water hyacinth, an invasive bane of American rivers, particularly in the lower Potomac, is used here for human food and crafts. It’s still advancing across the rivers in Vietnam and I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to eradicate some of it.
Small boats often use a unique motor system, with the outboard motor mounted at one end of a long pipe and the propeller at the other end. It allows the driver to lift the motor out of the water when necessary and steer by moving the propeller through the water.
The Mekong delta reminds me of the Mississippi delta in Louisiana, with most
people and cargo moving by boat rather than road. The Mekong delta is also tidal, so we could see the mangrove roots in the morning, but not in the afternoon. Lots of coconuts, mangoes, and bananas. Dredging is constant, and dikes were being built and maintained before the year's rainy season. (Wet season is April-December.) Rice was harvested while we floated by and we could see many boats bringing their cargoes to the rice mill. Vietnam exports more rice than any country except Thailand, helped by the irrigation system that allows farmers to get three crops per year. (Next door, Cambodia's government has not helped farmers build irrigation canals, so they rely on the rain and get only one crop per year.)
In both 2012 and 2017, we spent luxurious days and nights traveling through the Mekong river delta on Dragon Eyes a beautiful teakwood boat (https://www.mekongeyes.com/en/boats/dragon-eyes) . It had only two staterooms, accommodating four passengers with a crew of five. However, Tom had arranged for us to be the only ones on the boat. Talk about luxury! We had cushioned lounge chairs in the shade or sun on the top deck, enjoying the strong (about 20 mph) wind added to the wind made by the boat – I even needed a shawl in the evening.
In 2012, we boarded in Can Tho, slept one night, and left the boat in Cai Be. Our guide, Son Ca, was excellent, as she cared for us aboard and took us on a village riverside walk and a walking tour of the market in Cai Be. Our only problem was the continuous rain of food – lunch, then tea, then dinner, then breakfast, then a fruit stop at a farm, then lunch … all very good and pretty light, mostly fruits and veggies, but still …
We loved the experience so much that in 2017 we went back to Dragon Eyes! This time, we boarded at the town of Cai Be, traveled on the river overnight, and then transferred to a car to drive across "dancing roads" (we have those in Tennessee too) to Ha Tien on the west coast of Vietnam, which borders the Gulf of Thailand. Again we traveled on a beautiful two-stateroom teak boat. Again there was no one in the other stateroom, so the staff of four (captain, engineer/cook, server/bartender, and guide) took care of just us. In ultimate luxury, we ate royally, slept in comfort in an air conditioned stateroom, and enjoyed a bathroom with a large shower. Upstairs was a shaded deck, an area where we ate dinner and watched the sunset, and a place where we could sit in front of the wheelhouse and watch the river. By the way, here’s what they served us for our “light lunch”: pumpkin soup with coconut milk, shrimp, beef in lettuce leaves, sea bass with tomato sauce, rice, stir-fried green beans and carrots, and fruit with yoghurt sauce for dessert.
Along the way, we visited a floating market, an artisan rice noodle factory, and the Tra Su National Forest. Most of the forest is (very) wetland, and we traveled by motorboat and canoe. The trees are called “paperbark trees”, and we saw huge piles of their trunks being stacked and loaded onto boats along the river. While we were in the Forest, we learned that they’re actually eucalyptus trees. The park is threaded with cathedral-like watertrails, and we saw many egrets, herons, and a huge type of kingfisher.
During our visits to Asia, we have learned to eat "local". In many countries, refrigeration is unavailable, and fresh food is bought daily. We avoided the almost inevitable "traveler's tummy" by following the same rule. We ate only fresh food and we watched what we were served. As we traveled, we visited the markets where private and commercial cooks bought their supplies of vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, and shellfish. Sometimes the markets are floating, especially in the delta, and almost always they are outdoors. Why spend the money to put food into a building and wrap it in plastic? For a westerner, it does sometimes make the food seem more "real" than we're comfortable with.
In 2017, our western goal was Phu Quoc island off the west coast, where the local market is crammed with fresh fruits, vegetables, and almost every kind of finned fish and shellfish you can think of. Phu Quoc is also famous for its pearl farms, bee farms, pepper farms, and the Red Boat fish sauce factory https://redboatfishsauce.com/ . We know this because one day, we went on an island tour and were taken to one of each of them.
The rest of our time on Phu Quoc was spent doing absolutely nothing at the La Veranda resort https://laverandaresorts.com/ on the west side of the island. If you went due west from that beach, you’d land in Thailand. Due east is Vietnam, due north is Cambodia, and due south is Singapore.