ho chi minh - Where's Byrne?

ho chi minh

11.10.2011 – 16.10.2011 Sunny 28 °C

I’d been looking forward to Vietnam for ages, this was one of the places I’d wanted to go for years. We grabbed a bus from Phnom Penh for $13 each which wasn’t bad. We could have had a $10 bus but the Vietnamese bird told us this one was better and you didn’t need to get off the bus when crossing borders, worth it in itself as they are a pain in the arse. It was more bollocks though as we were made to get off the coach at the exit booths on the Cambodian border. I’d fully prepared myself to tell anyone who wanted a bribe where to go as, the absolute truth, we had $1 on us after a splurge on dinner and beers the night before. We couldn’t pay it if we wanted to. Luckily though, this time there were no bribes, just a photo and fingerprints. Weird. Onto the Vietnam entry we were ordered off the bus again, queued up to get our stamps and put our backpacks through scanners (this was the first time we’d  had our bags scanned when crossing borders). Once through, we continued to Ho Chi Minh. For once we arrived bang on 17:30, six-hours from departure and exactly the six hours we were told it would take. Blimey. Found a gaff for $15 a night just outside the backpacker area of De Tham.

Vietnam War Remnants Museum. First day we headed out in search of a bit of culture (well you can’t come to these places solely to get pissed up can you?). We found the Vietnam War Remnants Museum and had a nose around. Disappointing. They have all the memorabilia including spent shells and mines, various guns, with tanks, helicopters and planes from the US, but the way the museum is laid out and what information was there is poor to say the least. There was no ‘why’ it happened and statistics were light, instead choosing to list endless photographs of victims including a whole room dedicated to ‘Agent Orange’ (I still didn’t know what Agent Orange was after the visit – give me a minute while I Wiki it!). Sentences cut off short ending in ‘and’ or ‘in’ and there were quotes below photographs but they didn’t say who they were from. Please don’t think I am being heartless here but with so much emphasis on ‘look what the Americans did to us’ and absolutely nothing portraying the American side, how they defended themselves against the US and a brief timeline of major incidents, I found it hard to find it interesting and what information was available, I didn’t take in. It’s so repetitive and the air of feeling sorry for themselves had the opposite effect on me. Yet there was a whole section on Vietnam’s special relationship with Romania. Onto the Notre Dame Cathedral, which in true South East Asian style, they had turned into a roundabout! A nice piece of architecture. Didn’t go in but had a beer in a nice café on the other side of the road. Verdict: Miss.

Ho Chi Minh City Zoo & Botanical Gardens. Attended the Ho Chi Minh City Zoo & Botanical Gardens. I thought it couldn’t get worse after visiting the Chiang Mai Night Safari but this topped it. In my opinion three-quarters of the animals were not being looked after properly or their enclosures or cages were far too small. The poor Lion and Lioness, the kings of the jungle had a 20ft x 15ft enclosure with a small roof for shelter which was leaking and had been for some time, by the looks of the moss and green slimy stuff all over the concrete. This meant the Lions had nowhere clean or dry to lay down, something which clearly affected Mr Lion. He looked ill and was shaking. Ms Lioness didn’t seem too bad but surely it’s only a matter of time before she goes the same way. The White Tiger had a fairly sized enclosure but seemed bored stiff on his own, pacing continually. The two orange Tigers in enclosures next door to each other were also in a bad way. The first looked as though he had terrible arthritis and was limping with every step, even wincing in pain as he walked, and the second was so dazed he didn’t even seem to notice we were there. The Chimpanzees had the smallest cage I’ve ever seen Chimps in. A Leopard was in the same size enclosure as a Fishing Cat and a Civet despite them being a quarter of it’s size. The poor Elephants were all lined up shaking their heads in a figure 8 motion, obviously been trained to do so for food and the Deer were laying in mud. There was no grass or greenery to lay on whatsoever. The Croc’s enclosure was too crowded, 20 in a small area. The Otters, Peacocks and ‘Common Pheasants’ (why these were in a cage I’ve no idea) cages were also way too small. The Sun Bear and Asiatic Black Bear, Orangutans and the two Rhinos enclosures were of a fair size I suppose. Three women tried and failed to rip us off for 100,000 dong (£3), giving us carrots to feed to the Monkeys which we did, they then asked for money to which I offered 20,000d (60p – fair for 3 carrots don’t you think?) and they shouted 100,000d. They followed us for 5 minutes continually moaning with me still  offering the 20,000. I started nice, but ended having to tell them to fuck off as I was getting the ump. Sick of people trying to rip us off already. Lastly, there was a tacky fun fair type thing at the end which looked like it had been there for years without maintenance. Verdict: Awful excuse for a zoo. God bless all the poor animals.

Cu Chi Tunnels. Following on from the War Remnants Museum we thought we would check out the Cu Chi Tunnels, tunnels hand dug by local Guerilla fighters to hide from the Americans during the Vietnam war. For $6 how bad could it be? Not great is the answer. Cue the ‘look what the Americans did to us’ plea again with some awful black and white video which detailed two Vietnamese in particular who received ‘American Killing Medals’ for violently killing so many yanks. Yes, you read that right. The tunnels themselves you had to marvel at. To have dug them by hand was incredible. 250km worth of intertwining tunnels created a city right under the feet of the enemy. Even though they showed in detail the barbaric traps they made for the Americans there was still nothing on how many they killed or any sense of regret at all. Verdict: If you have a spare afternoon and $6 you could do this but having seen if for myself I wouldn’t bother.

There seems a repeating theme of me complaining but it does get better. I did find some things actually worth doing!

Ho Chi Minh City Tour. $22 (£15) we got this for, down from $25. Included a city tour by Cyclo (a bike with a one seat carriage in front), entrance to the famous Vietnamese Water Puppets Show and dinner on a ship going down the Mekong River. Not bad ah?! And it wasn’t, in fact it was bloody good. It started with the Cyclo guy, Song and his mate, Mute (he didn’t speak any English) pedaling me and B around the city, trying to waste time until the puppet show kicked off. This was great, if a bit nervy. There are 7 million bikes and mopeds in Ho Chi Minh and it showed but Song had biked around HCMC for over twenty years and he knew the drill. I felt really executive, getting waved at by children playing and adults on bikes. As we headed out at dusk the city looked fantastic with the pink and orange backdrop. Onto the water puppet show and Song and Mute said they’d be outside when we came out. Great. I felt a bit bad for leaving them twiddling their thumbs for an hour but I suppose they were being paid by our tour operator and I’d already decided to tip them at the end. The puppet show itself, lets say it wasn’t my cup of tea. There wasn’t a single word of English so I had absolutely no idea what was going on and after the third act of fifteen it became repetitive, although I will acknowledge how skilled the puppeteer’s were. The accompanying traditional Vietnamese music was a racket and too loud in general, but there was one girl in particular I found most annoying with her fucking squeaky child like voice. Instead of being amazed by these ugly Chinese paper mache dolls I found myself daydreaming, imagining jumping in the water, throttling the chicken-puppet that B later informed me was a Phoenix, and looking around for the best spot to fire from then make my exit if I was a sniper, usual bloke stuff. The best bit was the last act when a Dragon thing started prancing about and got a bit keen, splashing everyone in the front row including some blonde snooty bitch that was tutting and trying to move away. The more splashed she got the more agitated she was getting and the funnier it was, you could practically see the veins popping out her forehead. The Japenese sitting with her were getting wet too yet they were laughing and joking, snotty nosed cow. (Mini Verdict: For $4 go and see for yourself).

Out we came and after nearly climbing on some other guys cyclo, Song and his mate came rushing over to whisk us up onto their’s (I thought it was Song – they all looked the same). On with the city tour which continued to dazzle. HCMC isn’t a particularly pretty place but it was good enough being chauffeured around it. It’s a little like how I would imagine KL to have been 5 – 10 years ago. Continuing on to the ship, it was a big boat, anchored off the Mekong River. We had no idea what was for dinner, just that we were going to eat. After being seated on the top deck and with a beer down us we were given five dishes with rice to share. After munching through the soup, we looked up and saw the dock 10 yards away, we hadn’t even realised we were moving. Along the river and back down we continued our feast. It was great, decent lounge music to go with the meal, great smiley service and no flies or mozzies. There was too much food really but we couldn’t leave it because it was great grub. There was also a sexy bird hula hooping rings of fire. Upon returning to dry land Song and Mute came running after us again to Cyclo us back to our Hotel. We were out for four hours and had a fantastic time. Can certainly say we saw the city, with good old Song and Mute pushing us round. They were happy with our tip too. Verdict: Well worth it.

Mekong Delta two-day excursion. We paid $30 each for a two-day excursion to the Mekong Delta, just to get it out the way more than anything. These trips are a convenient way to knock sites out sometimes although you often end up doing and seeing things that aren’t your cup of tea. We hopped on a minibus at half-eight (am), the last ones on and forced to sit apart. B got a moody Ozzie who moaned when she had to take her bag off the spare seat next to her and I got the most annoying Vietnamese bloke possible. First of all, I’m not a big bloke, but I am bigger than him, ergo, I have longer legs meaning I need more leg room. This tosser decided he wasn’t going to move his legs over instead spreading them like a hooker on a £500 tip. To counter I decided that I wasn’t putting up with any shit from this annoying brown gremlin and so pushed back. After a bit of toing and froing with neither of us saying a word nor making eye contact he gave in and moved over. Victory, you fucking little monkey. I was still a little cramped, but knowing that if I gave up any space he’d be straight back in it, I unnaturally spread my legs too ending up with my left leg and his right leg touching for most of the journey. Nice. I hope he wasn’t gay. To earn the title ‘the most annoying Vietnamese bloke possible’ he spent the next two hours huffing, puffing, opening the curtain over the window, closing the curtain over the window, fiddling with the air conditioner, looking in his bag, reaching across me to pass things to his two mates to my right, taking pictures of the window to my right positioning the camera 4″ from my face, eating, sneezing, snoring and scratching his balls. Fantastic. People with less patience than myself would have easily lost it. Knowing my luck, he’d turn out to be a Vietnamese Bruce Lee and he’d kung fu my arse up in front of everyone. And besides, I’m British.

First up was a trip to a Coconut Candy shop/factory by boat. Brilliant, and it was! I was well impressed. They crack them in half, lob the milk (well, just let it spill all over the floor actually – you’d think it would get sticky wouldn’t you?) grind the flesh out into a huge bowl. They then mix it with water and I presume gelatine, plus sometimes peanut, chocolate or other stuff depending on which type they need, pour it into strip moulds and let it go hard. Using about ten strips at a time they slice them into pieces of candy with a machete and some poor bird at the end of the production line gets a piece of rice paper and a wrapper and wraps them all by hand, putting fifty in a packet, heat sealing them and then selling them for £1. Proper little business they have there. I bought a pack.

Back on the boat we travelled down a small waterway eventually transferring to canoes for four people. I can confirm the Vietnamese row boats the same way they drive, with no order and generally no brains. We got stuck at two bottlenecks where they were trying to row in both directions past two boats on either side that had been tied to the river banks. Soon there were a good twenty-six boats in my field of vision, fifteen of them with people in trying to go one way or another. After quarter of an hour and someone finally working out they had to go backwards to let the other side through we arrived at an open canteen type place decked out in bamboo to try exotic fruits and listen to traditional Vietnamese music. Great. I’d had enough of that already what with that silly bitch at the water puppet show wailing like she’d been stabbed. The exotic fruits were nice, although not that exotic – or maybe I’m just well-travelled? Banana, Papaya, Dragon fruit, Pineapple and Rambutan (red and furry but like a lychee inside). Where’s the Durian, Vietnamese Mango, Star Apple, Longan or Qyut – stuff I’ve never tried? Lame. Tea was nice, I’m getting into green tea, it doesn’t taste the same as the stuff in England, it’s a lot more refreshing – but is it like having a San Miguel in Spain? I was right about the music, it  wasn’t for me, just loads of wailing and shouting although I liked the guys guitar type thing that accompanied it. After that it was round the corner to have traditional honey tea from a Bee farm. When I say Bee farm I bet you have visions of green fields with white bee buildings and a guy in a big white suit right? Well, here it was mud with a wooden block about 3 foot high sliding shelves out vertically, covered in bees creating honeycomb tended to by a guy wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt. He’s a brave man. The tea was very good, green tea with honey, bee pollen and an orange the size of a big marble squeezed into it. Really good. After this a Python got whipped out from a tank and most of the guys had it draped around their necks. Bit disappointed in myself for not doing it but I’m sure there will be other opportunities over the rest of our trip.

Back on the bus for the two and a half hour trip to our homestay where we were spending the night. We’d spent five-hours of our day on that bus by then and after a paltry lunch offering of scraggly veg, rice and two pieces of ‘meat’ they called chicken (I’ve never seen these pieces on a chicken, looked more like rat) were looking forward to a good dinner. Out comes rice paper with some cabbage and carrot. Great. I hate fresh spring rolls, they’re all chewy. At least there will be some meat out soon with it, probably pork. Out comes a fish. OK I don’t mind a bit of fish. My mouth full of fish, the guy who owns the place proceeded to tell us that he’d caught the ‘Elephant Fish’ today from the ‘river’. That was the end of my dinner.

Next day we were up at 05:30 to go for a walk around the paddy fields and plant some rice, something that I had been looking forward too. Was great walking through the fields wearing our traditional Vietnamese round pointed hats and watching the sun come up. Onto our next attraction, a rice husking mill. We got there by boat and on the way in there was a small pig in a rabbit cage looking thoroughly unhappy – he didn’t even have enough space to turn round, a rat in a cube of mesh the sized of three rubiks cubes who was so scared he was cowering in a corner and an elephant fish who was seven years old in a tank only four times his own size. Seven years in that tank, could you imagine seven years in a cell only four times your size with food coming under the door? Great start. The ‘mill’ itself was an efficient operation which was a pleasure to watch. They were making rice noodles. They melt the rice with water to make a paste which is then spread over a hot plate and steamed for 30 seconds to make a round sheet of wet rice paper. Next it’s left on weaved stretcher like things in the sun for four-hours where it goes hard. Once hard it is put through a shredder. Simple. They produce one-two tons a day in summer. When it’s the rainy season they don’t get the four hours sun to dry them out so they start at 2am and leave them out for slightly longer. How much do they earn? $50 – $60 a month, That’s about £10 a week. And you thought you had a rough job. To put things into perspective as some of you are must be thinking it’s all relative due to the low-cost of living, a bowl of Pho (stock which they call soup with rice noodles and some beef, pronounced fur) is a staple dish. Some have that twice or even three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The cheapest we’ve seen is 20,000 dong a bowl which is 60p. 10 bowls a week is £6 from your £10 gone. I’ve no idea what they do if they have a family.

Our last activity was to visit a floating market which we weren’t too keen on after seeing two in Thailand. This was different though, rather than having huge platforms floating and tied together with market stalls on them it’s a collection of boats floating around in the river with a piece of whatever they’re selling tied to a stick on the top of the boat. Cool. Pineapples, Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Carrots etc. A boat for everything you could want. I even bought an iced coffee from a bird who burned up next to us and tied her boat to ours. An iced coffee, in the middle of a river. The boats carrying Potatoes were so weighed down they were nearly taking on water. Good stuff.

After another five-hours in the minivan we arrived in HCMC. I would have been well happy with the trip despite the ten hours total spent in the minivan if I hadn’t found out a German couple had paid $39 for the same trip when we paid $60, and I knocked her down $8 too! Mugs. Verdict: Worth booking some sort of trip as they do pack in many activities and it’s great crossing the Mekong Delta so easily.

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