Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Da Nang airport was well-appointed and modern but boarding the aircraft was still the disorganised scramble which we'd experienced at other local airports, and it would have been nice to board by air bridge given the heat and humidity. Da Nang is a dual civilian and military airport and whilst boarding, two fighters took off with a colossal amount of noise. The air force seems to be equipped with Russian fighters which are highly regarded in terms of ruggedness and reliability, even if these (MiG 21's or Sukhoi) are a bit long in the tooth now. Our flight was held on the taxiway whilst one of them landed, jettisoned its parachute and then taxied right in front of us. Picture taken from inside the plane, hence the blurring.
MiG or Sukhoi fighter
Opera house by night
Pavement motorcycle service business
CPO - what a wonderful, vibrant building!
Applying tiny pieces of mother of pearl
Arriving in Saigon just before lunchtime, we checked in to the hotel and then wandered out to find something to eat. This is where my dining experience turned into pure comedy, errr...for the others, that is! Vietnamese food is invariably served with little bowls of dipping sauces and delicious, fairly mild chillies and so on. Lunch this time was no exception and the selection of spring rolls we ordered came with an assortment of interesting little bowls. In one of them was the usual scarlet ringlets of chopped chilli, accompanied by what looked like the diced flesh from a cucumber. It looked extremely inviting so I heaped a load on the end of my chopsticks and shovelled it in. Next moment, my head exploded and I was in a world of pain. How on earth can anyone eat anything that hot???? In spitting it out, some got onto my lips and it felt that I'd been smacked in the mouth by Mike Tyson. Nose and eyes running, swigging beer like there was no tomorrow, I had to endure a certain amount of piss-taking by my fellow diners who then wisely avoided that little bowl. I don't know what the white stuff was, but cucumber it wasn't. My lips were still tingling slightly the next morning!
After lunch, it was time for a walk round Saigon city centre to see a few sights. It's a clean, modern city although there are still a lot of old buildings from the days of French colonialism which are immaculately preserved.
The gorgeous opera house
Despite being in the centre of a modern city, pavement trade still flourished and added to the colour. We found a shop which specialised in model replicas of old sailing vessels, some seriously large as the photo below shows. Incredible in detail and like most other things in Vietnam, real value for money. Whilst we were there, an employee was out on the pavement building a crate from scratch to house one of the model ships which had just been sold.
A seriously large model ship with amazing detail
Business enterprise is everywhere and in the photo below, some guys are running a motorcycle and cycle service business from the pavement. In the background, a bicycle is being serviced and in the foreground; the scooter is being overhauled. Cables have been removed for lubrication and note the bowl of old engine oil on the kerb! The scooter owner sits in the luxury customer reception chair whilst the work is performed. What a joy to see!
That evening, we enjoyed cocktails in the famous Saigon Saigon bar at the Caravelle Hotel we were staying in. Must say that the city views were lovely and the cocktails were value for money. The Singapore Slings were far superior to those in Singapore and at about 1/3 of the price too!
Singapore Sling with accompanying Dragon Fruit decoration
The following morning, we visited Notre Dame cathedral which was beautifully kept and an architectural delight, again reinforcing the religious and civil freedoms in the country.
Interior of Notre Dame cathedral
However, there was one building which transcended the cathedral in terms of architectural splendour and this was the French-inspired Central Post Office. What a magic place!
With its decorative ceramic floor tiles, rich red wood and beautifully-painted walls, it was a building which simply made your head swivel and grin in pleasure. Hats off to someone who knew how to design "happy" buildings. The surprises of the CPO weren't weren't quite finished though as our guide Giau reverentially pointed out an elderly gentleman seated at a bench (below). This gentleman, well into his 80's, started work at the post office when he was 16. Long retired, he holds an emeritus post. He's the last public letter writer in Vietnam. This means that he's there to help people with writing difficulties to compose letters, or offer translations into to other dialects or languages. And he comes in every day. A genuine living treasure.
The last public letter writer - something immensely sad about that
Next stop was a lacquerware factory just down the road. Lacquerware was right off my radar before this visit so it was an entirely new experience. Vietnamese lacquerware normally uses rose, cherry or walnut as a base which is wet or steam-moulded to the desired shape as required. It's then impregnated with a stabilising lacquer and often with a gauze skin to prevent cracking. Coats of natural lacquer tinted with pigment are then applied, along with decorative mother of pearl, eggshell or other coloured paint. Each coat is sanded back to provide a lustrous, smooth finish and to expose the decorative medium. The 2 photos below show decorative material being applied and sanding back of one of the dozens of coats. Pieces often take 4 months to complete because of the drying time between coats. I fear the piece of plastic in the wallet is about to get another hiding!
We stopped off at the Vietnamese War Museum for a couple of hours. Going there perhaps seems at odds with a carefree and fun-filled holiday but how could you not go after all had been seen and heard about the conflict which filled our newspapers and TV for so long in decades past? What I write next is neither a condemnation nor tacit approval of the reasons behind the war, it's simply how I felt being at the museum. The war happened at a time in history when opposing sides were terrified of each other's ideologies and it has to be seen in the context of predictable responses at that time. The different rooms of the museum depicted various aspects of the war. Two rooms had photos taken by western journalists covering Agent Orange and the brutalities perpetrated by both sides. Normally, I'm a pretty controlled type but I stood there wiping the tears away whilst I was in those two rooms. I wasn't the only one either. Little wonder that veterans on all sides were changed people when it was all over. I think it was what happened to children which really tipped me over the edge. What also made it emotionally harder to shrug off was that nowhere in the museum was there any left wing political rhetoric or blame for what happened - it was what it was. This again shows the Vietnamese to be exceedingly special people. NZ infantry and Special Forces plus our Aussie cousins fought alongside America and I asked Giau how her countrymen felt about our respective countries. She replied that good people are good people everywhere and if anyone has to be singled out, it might be politicians everywhere who should hang their heads in shame. Wise, generous and humbling, especially from a 26 year old.
I recently saw a quotation by Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American clergyman, which succinctly sums it up:
"The tragedy of war is that it uses man's best to do man's worst".
To end this narrative on a lighter note, Kiwis, Aussies and tourists from the Americas seem to be well-liked by the Vietnamese as being down to earth and easy to get along with. Overall, previous colonial masters the French are not regarded with quite the same level of affection!
US Fighter bomber - Northrop Freedom Fighter?
What big eyes you have, Grandma!
Skyraider - a BIG plane!
Gatling gun on a Huey helicopter
Having seen the museum, we then travelled in a reflective mood to the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong in the Saigon area. Large amounts of them still exist although they'd been tidied up a bit to let the "larger" western tourist experience some parts of them.
Giau explaining the extent of tunnelling
A well-concealed entrance
B-52 bomb crater still visible and still deep
Sharpened bamboo stake booby trap
After the above-ground part of the tour, we were asked whether anyone wished to go underground. Jennie and Sue weren't keen but Gary and I were up for it. Descending into the first level, the heat was diabolical and the confined space didn't help either. The photos below were taken with flash but they were quite poorly lit in reality.
Large entrance way
Crouching and twisted sideways in over 40 C temperatures
It was a fascinating and appalling insight into the conditions which prevailed. It would have been an absolute nightmare for both the Vietnamese and the Tunnel Rats who went in to clear the tunnels. It certainly helped to understand a little more about the conflict which happened all that time ago but at the same time, seems like yesterday in some respects.
Jackfruit tree at Cu Chi. Delicious either fresh or dried
Local workboat and floating water hyacinth - an invasive weed which apparently didn't exist in Vietnam 2 decades ago
Another innovative motorcycle conversion between Cu Chi and Saigon
We had come to the last evening of our stay in Vietnam and we all went with Giau for an evening cruise on a multi-decked Sampan on the Saigon River for yet another memorable meal, accompanied by a Philippine woman who sang beautifully with the backing of a synthesiser. However, the musical highlight of the evening was when a member of the audience, a Vietnamese woman around 60 got up and backed by the synthesiser, sang House of the Rising Sun in French! What a voice, what a standing ovation!!!
Dinner cruise on the Saigon river
Some reflections on Vietnam:
Loved the place with a passion. Rich history and culture and wonderful scenery. Heaps to see, do and buy at very competitive prices by western standards. The hotels we stayed in were close to flawless and the service was superb. At the other end of the scale, our eldest son was impressed with backpacking arrangements and homestays when he visited a few short years ago. The further south you go, the warmer it gets and the people become increasingly laid back.
The food - divine! Healthy, delicious and a huge range of options. Even local eateries seem to have high health standards. Bottled water is recommended and is available everywhere and cheap. Local beer is also delicious and cheap!
The people..... charming and good-humoured to a fault - loved 'em to bits. Giau, our guide was sheer magic. On top of her game, a real wit - who could ask for more?
A small group tour was perfect for us as it could be personalised and the guide was able to take us to unexpected places on a whim using local knowledge. Active Asia, who have branches in NZ and Vietnam organised a superb tour and we also got the right balance of time to ourselves.
Would we return? Darned right we would! We still have the Mekong Delta and the north-western hill country to cover and we can combine it with travel plans elsewhere in Asia.
I'm sure that doesn't cover everything but you get the gist!
Next time, the final holiday destination - Singapore.