Since I am nearly a month behind in my blog writing, I consider the unnecessary length of the previous entry rather debilitating. Consequently, I will attempt to restrict the word count of this discussion. Fortunately, I don’t expect that to be a heinously difficult task, as the South of Vietnam was easily my least favourite region. Mum and Peter’s intervention on Globo Trip compelled me to travel through Vietnam faster than intended and thus skip numerous places of interest. I would therefore like to return to Vietnam to see those unvisited areas. I have no aspirations though to return to the far south of the country. Vietnam’s largest city of Saigon is eminently skippable; a wretched place of congestion, industrialisation, tourists and dodgy characters. The Mekong Delta is pleasanter, but my experience was compromised by my annoyance at poor decision-making. Nevertheless, I don’t believe its anywhere near as stimulating as destinations in the north.
Mum and Peter’s holiday concluded after one night in Saigon. While Mum desired to travel longer, they were not displeased to leave Saigon behind. Strangely on the final night of the trip, Mum acquired an authoritative voice, commanding presence and became the official “spokesperson” of the trip. She questioned and ordered staff efficiently and was suddenly fending off touts for motorcycles, fake Lonely Planet guidebooks and marijuana like there was no tomorrow! Those abilities might have been handy two weeks earlier…
Saigon is the modern and economic boomtown of Vietnam, akin to Shanghai or Mumbai. The land the metropolis occupies and the surrounding delta region were historically within Khmer (Cambodian) territory. Refugees from the north settled in a small fishing village known as Prey Nokor in the seventeenth century and gradually Vietnamised the area. By 1698, Vietnam seized administrative control and Saigon became an important coastal city. Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City (named after the revered communist leader of the North. The inherently communist name of the city is still an issue for many residents), has since become the country’s largest and wealthiest city. Modern Saigon completely lacks the charm of historic Hanoi. Wide boulevards dissect an ugly urban fabric in the inner city. The roads are permanently congested with endless swarms of motorcycles: Saigon is equal to Cairo as the worst cities I have experienced for traffic. It was very difficult to surmount the courage to tackle the streets of Saigon and I often waited minutes until a local was crossing. The only aesthetical components of Saigon are the Western-style buildings that were constructed during French colonial rule, including the Gothic cathedral, the Beaux-Arts Opera House and the neoclassical Central Post Office (amazing interior). The Reunification Palace, the former residence of the South Vietnamese president, was probably the city’s most intriguing attraction. The palace was constructed during the 1960s and exhibits all the clichéd design principles from this era. Some rooms are evocative of Austin Powers-style futurism. The “backpacker district” is a massive neon-lit area of the city completely devoted to the tourism sector. While I usually loathe such uncultured zones, I had an excellent night there on Halloween eve. The streets were totally full of people (immobilising traffic), with Vietnamese teenagers running around in spooky outfits and spreading tar onto people’s faces.
Vietnam, a country of such warm and hospitable people, suffered perpetual turmoil and conflict for more than three decades in the twentieth century. I think this period is particularly relevant to the South of Vietnam, which is why I have delayed discussion on said matter. German conquest of France in 1940 instigated the establishment of the fascist Vichy regime, which required French colonists in Vietnam to collaborate with the Japanese. The French retained administration of Vietnam during the Second World War, but the Japanese had ultimate power in Indochina. Communist leader Ho Chi Minh began a nationalist struggle for independence from both French and Japanese occupation. Vietnam was pacified after the war by a combination of French (after liberation), British and Chinese nationalist forces, but the Viet Minh (communists) continued guerrilla warfare. In 1950, the Soviet Union and communist China (post Chinese civil war) recognised the Hanoi-based Viet Minh as the legitimate government of Vietnam and their forces were transformed into a regular army. The Americans supported the French-backed Saigon government and funded up to eighty per cent of the French campaign. France eventually withdrew and negotiated independence to all Indochinese countries.
Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel and according to the Geneva Accords, elections were to be held in 1956 to form a unified government. President Eisenhower was reputedly advised that if an election were to transpire in South Vietnam, eighty per cent would vote for the communist leader Ho Chi Minh. South Vietnam’s American-backed despotic dictator (US governments seem to favour that type) and communist officials in North Vietnam both rigged elections about the future statuses of their respective countries. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, large-scale dissent plagued the countryside of South Vietnam (most rural peasants were communists).
North Vietnam did not become directly and officially engaged until 1964, when they intervened to support communist guerrillas in overthrowing the Southern dictatorship. Peter amusingly revealed that when he was young, he often wondered when listening to the radio, “how did they manage to train gorillas to fight?” Direct US involvement was initiated by President Johnson as part of a broader strategy of “containment”. Despite initial successes in the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive of 1968 irrevocably damaged Johnson’s credibility and destroyed public support. President Nixon authorised a policy of “Vietnamisation” of the war and US soldiers were completely withdrawn by 1973. The communists eventually defeated South Vietnam in 1975 and unified the country under independent Vietnamese leadership for the first time in more than a century. Millions of combatants and civilians were killed and the entire industrial base of the North was destroyed.
The government opted to rapidly socialise the South, a poorly executed policy which further hurt the Third World economy. Ethnic Chinese, who dominated the merchant classes in cities like Saigon, were particularly persecuted. They departed Vietnam en mass and become known globally as the “boat people”. This severely damaged relations with China and Vietnam shifted to the USSR sphere of influence (Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in the late 1950s from the bitter rivalry for leadership of the communist world). In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge; possibly the most despicable regime in human history. The Chinese, however, were an ally of the Khmer Rouge and reacted by invading Vietnam. The battle-hardened Vietnamese utterly humiliated the Chinese army and the great power was forced to retreat. The 1980s reforms of the Soviet Union resulted in withdrawn support for foreign communist states. Consequently, Vietnam opened its doors and markets to the broader world and the first tourists arrived in 1991. Vietnam is now a rapidly developing (faster than China) market-driven economy with a booming tourism sector.
Perhaps more famous than the historical facts and timeline outlined above are the terrible hardships and contemptible atrocities that the Vietnamese people suffered through the series of conflicts. To gain a miniscule appreciation, I joined a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels and visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. Cu Chi village is located around two hours driving from Saigon. During the Vietnam War, the villagers fought the South Vietnamese government as communist guerrillas (Viet Cong). They constructed an unimaginably extensive network of tunnels that stretched far beyond Cu Chi district. The tunnels were used for hiding during combat, communication, supply routes, hospitals and storage. The tunnels at Cu Chi exist at high elevation, so flooding them with water is an insufficient tactic to counter their usefulness. The tunnel system in South Vietnam was vitally important to the Viet Cong’s campaign. They would often reside in the tunnels during the day and only exit under the cover of night, to fight or tend to crops. The Americans did not realise the military significance until an Australian specialist engineering troop searched some discovered tunnels exhaustively and found ammunition, radio equipment and medical supplies. Visitors to Cu Chi can enter a portion of one tunnel (takes five minutes). The tunnel has been slightly enlarged to allow for Western-tourists to fit through, although it was still rather tight (I had to crawl). When I entered the tunnel, our group’s movement was delayed by a dumb American (no surprises there) who was freaking out because of the lack of space. Along with several members of the group, I had no remorse for this fool because he should have entered the tunnel if he harboured a fear of claustrophobic places. We were instead irritated to be stuck in very uncomfortable positions while awaiting his return to sanity. The tourist centre at Cu Chi has numerous exhibits of the various booby traps the Viet Cong set in the jungle intended for unaware Americans. The US military efforts in the region were far less subtle, with heavy carpet bombing levelling the forests and occasionally destroying the tunnels. The War Remnants Museum features graphic photographic displays about the Vietnam War. It includes exhibitions of atrocities like the My Lai massacre and the continual effects from Agent Orange (deformed children). At institutions like this, its fascinating to read accounts of the war presented by the other side.
The Mekong Delta is a densely populated region in the South of Vietnam, where Indochina’s greatest river disperses into the sea. The delta is thus extremely conducive to agriculture and is considered the “rice bowl” of Vietnam. Most tourists visit the Mekong Delta on a multi-day tour from Saigon. I stubbornly refused to entertain this possibility and instead attempted to explore the delta independently to avoid the clichéd souvenir shops. This was ultimately a stupid decision, because I didn’t save any money, I saw and experienced less and was continuously stressed about finding the correct bus station, bus, street, hotel etc. (my route and timeframe were the same as the tours). I did at least meet several kindly Vietnamese people between Saigon and Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. Despite its size and busyness, Can Tho retains some charm as a riverside metropolis. The promenade area is quite pleasant with colourful facades, lively markets and a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh. Small wooden boats ply the giant but languid Can Tho River, while wooden-stilt houses can be seen on the other side. At sunset, I was treated to an extraordinary spectacle of colour. The sun set behind the city buildings and the sky boomed a brilliant gold-orange colour. In the opposite direction, the sky featured various hues of pink and purple, which were reflected on the wide river.
From Can Tho, I joined a morning boat tour of the surrounding delta area. Cai Rang is the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta and is easily accessible from Can Tho. We reached Cai Rang by 8:00am to see the early morning trade. I expected Cai Rang to be a real highlight of my travels in Vietnam, but it was ultimately a ho-hum experience. Around forty to fifty wooden vessels congregate in the middle of Can Tho River and each transports mountains of produce (usually tropical fruits). I didn’t think the spectacle was all that intriguing and it lacked atmosphere because it was not bustling with buyers and sellers. The market is apparently livelier in April and May when the tropical fruits are in season. The boat tour then journeyed along connecting tributaries and canals. When you drive through the Mekong Delta region, you pass over new rivers or canals at least every ten minutes. These waterways were bordered by wooden stilt houses and banana trees. We stopped at a noodle-making factory and observed how the villagers manually produced the noodles from rice flour. The process is quite convoluted and they use a range of intricate bamboo apparatuses. The tour concluded at a tropical fruit garden where rats (from the rice fields) and frogs were cooked for tourists (although both are traditional components of the diet of Vietnamese living in rural areas of the Mekong Delta).
Consistent with the general theme of disappointment in the South of Vietnam, I ate few mentionable dishes in the region. However, the baguettes of Saigon were certainly a culinary highlight. Ubiquitous throughout the metropolis are street vendors selling cheap sandwiches made with crusty French baguettes. They are filled with slices of roast pork, meatloaf of some delectable variety, cucumber, grated carrot, coriander (plucked out of mine), mayonnaise, chilli and soy sauce. A popular snack in the South is green mango with a chilli and salt mixture to dip the slices in. In Can Tho, I regrettably found myself in a vegetarian restaurant and ordered rice vermicelli (ultra-thin noodles) curry soup. I had not previously eaten noodles with curry, but it was actually a convivial dish with tofu and vegetables. The soup was indicative of my proximity to the Gulf of Thailand (curry is not inherently Vietnamese). One of the best dishes I ate in Vietnam was also the last. In the coastal and border town of Ha Tien, I ate a delicious batch of fried noodles with prawns. The dish was particularly special because of the garlic and prawn flavour infused into the sauce.
This concluded my stay in Vietnam, the first country of my last “trip” in 2013 (Southeast Asia). While the South wasn’t necessarily my favourite region, I had a brilliant time overall in Vietnam; despite Mum and Peter’s presence during most of it. After staying in Can Tho, I had some difficulty in reaching the border town of Ha Tien. I was unable to catch a connecting bus in Rach Gia in the early evening and was required to stay at a motor-inn about ten kilometres from the centre of town. I departed the god-forsaken area at 5:00am and caught a motorcycle taxi with my luggage to the bus station: the first time I have been on a motorcycle. The early start was successful as I eventually reached Cambodia when I originally intended to.
That’s all for now,
P.S. Sean has revealed he does have an Achilles heel to his vegetarianism: he’s requesting dried deer penis for Christmas.