Tuesday 12th September
After an extra hour in bed caused by turning the clocks back an hour to arrive at Vietnam time we got up at 6.00 a.m. (Midnight UK time) and after a shower went to Breakfast at 6.30 ready to leave the ship at 7.30 for our day’s tour followed by travel to Cambodia.
As someone for whom the Vietnamese war is ancient history and who only has an old memory about people flying out from the US Embassy, now demolished, on the last day of the war in 1975 (when I was 17), Vietnam is not as clear a memory as it was for instance for the guy in our neighbouring cabin on the ship served with the US army in South Vietnam, as the US puppet state, created to try and halt the onward movement of Communism, was called.. For me it is the images of ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Rambo’ and ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ that informs my limited views of the history of those days.
The current Peoples Republic of Vietnam has, with China, that strange mix of one party rule in an otherwise highly capitalistic social model. So communist party by Government, but very unmarxist in the survival of the fittest model used in economic development. This was very evident when we arrived in the country with a large number of small competing stores and services.
The ship docked at Phu My, where the Mekong river meets the South China Sea. This is about two hours down river from Ho Chi Minh city, Saigon. This part of Vietnam was from the 9th to the 16th century firmly part of the Khymer Empire (now Cambodia) the town, later City, at the last easily crossed section of the river before the Mekong delta becomes a swamp was called Funan, which with the gradual arrival of Vietnamese people moving south into the area became known by the name it is still called by the locals – Saigon.
The French arrived here in the 1850’s and created a city centre which looks and feels like the wide boulevards of Paris. It was at this point that Saigon formally became part of the French providence of South Vietnam. Only in 1975 did the city come under formal Vietnamese rule, and was renamed Ho Chi Minh city after the founder of the Vietnamese revolution. While formal documents call it Ho Chi Minh city all its inhabitants refer to it as Saigon.
Having travelled along the river towards Saigon. The first thing that strikes you is the hustle and bustle of small shop-keepers and garage owners along the route. That and the ubiquitous motor-bikes are the memorable sounds of Vietnam. The friendly people, ready to wave at passers-by, were radically different from the glowering communist peoples of countries in Europe (former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, USSR etc.) that I had visited in their Communist days.
The second thing that came to me as a surprise is that the Vietnamese language, though similar in sound and tone to Chinese and other South-East Asian languages uses a Latin alphabet. We found later in the day that this was because when the language was first written down, this was undertaken by a Belgian philologist who used Latin characters to transcribe the language. Therefore unlike some of the other places we visit on this trip, we have a better chance of guessing the pronunciation of Vietnamese words.
Our guide, Hai (pronounced like the English Hi), proved a fount of knowledge and personal experience. His own family had fallen apart due to the Vietnamese war, with his father being a member of the support team at the US airforce base in Saigon, and his mother being a nurse who was a strong, though silent (for fear of her life), supporter of Ho Chi Minh and the liberation movement of the Viet-cong. Post liberation his father had left for the countryside, and later died, and his mother became an active supporter of the Communist parties effort to reform South Vietnam. Disillusioned she is now an active member of her Buddhist Pagoda (Temple) and prays for long periods every day for her family and country. Hai, the eldest in his family, supports his younger brothers and sisters as there is no ‘social security’ for elderly or children in the country.
We arrived in Saigon and were taken to the Vietnamese National History Museum. Unlike the national history museum in KL a few days ago which focussed on representations of live styles, this museum was much more like a traditional museum telling the history of the Mekong Delta from the early stone and bronze age inhabitants right up to the recent Vietnamese history. The history was repeated in Vietnamese and English and made for a great overview of a fascinating development. One of the specialities of Vietnamese culture is the pageants of Water Puppets, during our visit to the museum we had thirty minutes of this puppetry, which sounds pretty naff, but turns out to be entertaining, and to tell the story of river peoples life without the need for words. Well worth the visit.
From the National History museum we went on to a photo opportunity outside the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace, now called the reunification palace, which included the original tank which broke into the palace grounds on the last day of the war.
Next we travelled to China Town, a bustling part of Saigon where we visited the Thien Hau (Sea Goddess) temple. It had started to rain, so we were given pac-a-macs, given that Chinese temples have areas where the rains can fall (a blessing from god in their culture)n it was equally wet inside and outside the temple. Having seen similar temples in Penang and KL this one was not significantly new or different, but still worth a visit to see the impact of Chinese people and communities across the whole of this region.
From China town we went to a Lacquer factory to see the production process of this significant export item for Vietnam, this allowed the American’s among us to spend lots of money on artistic items. We just looked and walked on.
This was out first encounter with another feature of Saigon the street merchant. Getting off, and back on to, the bus we were greeted by adults and kids of all ages trying to sell postcards, books, cheaper lacquer products. The sound of ‘one dollar’ only ‘one dollar’ or two for a dollar, or as you were just to get on the bus ‘mister even three for one dollar’ was a feature it was hard to block out of the experience in Vietnam and in the following days in Cambodia.
Leaving the Lacquer factory we drove past the old US Embassy, now demolished, and on to the old French centre of Saigon for pictures of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is a mirror image of the Cathedral of the same name on the Seine, and the Post Office which is in French colonial style.
We then transferred for lunch to a lovely five star restaurant where the Vietnamese food (See below) was accompanied by a lovely dancing group doing traditional Vietnamese dance. To the untutored eye this looks more gentle, elegant and somehow fragile compared to the more robust dancing seen in the Thai/Khymer versions of such dancing.
After lunch the torrential rain continued and therefore the two post lunch photo-ops (City Hall and Binh Tay Market) were skipped. The guide hoped that the heavy monsoon rains, which had now come in the afternoon in the last three stops, would finish before we had to leave. However it seemed to be in for the night. He did take us to a liquor store, where one of the American couples asked him to buy snake wine for them, the photos tell the story, luckily we did not have to drink it!!
We were however able to visit the Rex Hotel, where for most of the years of the war, the US military press would give positive updates about the war, and then got very drunk. We only had one drink at the Rex, and while some of the American tourists got wet getting out to the surrounding shopping district, we stayed at the hotel and enjoyed the views.
From the Rex we went to Saigon airport, built by the US and another famous site of the Vietnamese war, and travelled on Vietnamese Airlines to Siem Reap in Northern Cambodia. The flight was 45 minutes and the plane was a modern airbus plane, so the flight was without incident.
Reflections on Vietnam, a much nicer place than I or Drew were expecting, with lovely people. Both of us think we would like to visit again with a little more time to stay to get even more into this gentle friendly society.
Having arrived at Siem Reap we got on to another coach with a new guide, Paul, who would be with us for our trip around the ancient city of Angkor (of which the modern town of Siem Reap is a part). We were all astounded to see the large number of modern hotels as we entered Siem Reap, you could have been on the strip in Vegas! I was not the only one who had expected the hotel to be basic, to describe it at best, but it turned out to be fantastic. The hotel we stayed in was the Sokha Hotel. A chain with two other hotels in Sianouckville (where the ship will dock in two days time) and Phenom Penh. For me it was nice to have a bed which didn’t move up and down in the night. While I had got used to sleeping at sea, I was still finding it hard to get off to sleep, as you would think the bed was moving away from you and jerk thinking you were missing it. The only nights I got to sleep quickly on ship were those where alcohol aided the sleep process. So these nights on solid ground were welcome.
The greeting to the hotel was fantastic, the room superb and the bar staff astounding. In particular the Cambodian staff seem to have thighs and calves that are super human. In delivering a drink to a table them get down on their haunches and service the drink from a posture below the eyeline of us sitting at the table. While I had seen Thai people doing this by getting down on their knees I had never see it with someone balancing on their calves and thighs. I don’t know what was my greatest temptation – to ask to help them up, or to poke their foreheads to see how well balanced they were. I managed to refrain from both.Food and Drink
Given the early departure we could not have breakfast in the Club Restaurant, so went to the Panorama Buffet instead, this was our first visit to the Buffet for Breakfast, there is something not as nice about making your own selection as there is about ordering from a menu, so instead of our exciting breakfasts we had a glass of juice each and some fruit. While there was cooked breakfast items available they were swimming in grease in their pans, so we didn’t have any. We didn’t even bother with tea or coffee.
Lunch – This was a buffet lunch, but was completely Vietnamese in style this included Cha gio, which are a much spicier version of the spring roll familiar from Chinese restaurants, there was also Pho which is a rice noodle soup cooked with vegetables and plenty of hot chillies, both made for a very warming dish. Best of all is the range of noodle salads, all on the hot end of spicy which mixed a lot of fresh local ingredients together with chilli, black pepper and cardamom or coriander. One of the best dishes was made from lotus stems, prawns and peanuts – I didn’t catch the name, but both of us caught our breath when we realised how spicy it was. Drew had a bottle of the local beer (333) and I had a diet coke with the meal.
Drinks at the Rex – Drew retried the local beer – 333 while I had a bottle of sparking water.
Dinner in Siem Reap – This was again a buffet, and this time it had US style food for those who didn’t want to try local food, Drew and I were both wanting to compare Khymer food with that of Vietnam. Like Vietnam, the food is well spiced, and the flavours are not overpowering, but significant. The flavours used are different from Thai food with its emphasis on Lemon Grass and Ginger, and tends to use more individual flavours for various dishes, so none could be described as a curry, but many individual dishes would use Cardamom, coriander, cumin, turmeric and other curry spices, to add warmth and depth to the flavours. Cambodian food clearly likes using fresh ingredients and whether it was meat, noodles, pak choi, other greens or rice the food tasted fresh. We eat so well mentioning individual dishes would take to long. Drew had Beer (Angkor Beer) with dinner and I had a Perrier water. Afterwards in the bar we had a few (three) Gin and Tonics each, before heading off for a peaceful nights sleep.