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Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh

8 Mar

When I was at school we studied the (Protestant) reformation. I distinctly remember that one of the grudges were the sale of religious relics. Bones and other brick-a-brack of religious figures were sold en masse. In Ho Chi Minh City we visited a museum (by far the best in the city) dedicated to the life of Mr. Minh which included a vast array of what can only be described as relics of his life.

Our entire visit was taken up by a kind of one-upmanship of who could find the best Mr. Minh relic. Look! His glasses. Come over here – look, his hat! Even better – his sandels! Model replica of his house? I can do better than that – model replica of his maternal grandmother's house! Maternal? Here is a model replica of his paternal grandmother's house!

In the end it was a draw. Mr. Minh's chopsticks and rice bowl & Mr. Minh’s watering can (with a painting of him using it displayed behind).

That is what we thought until we saw a small brown lump wrapped up in see-through plastic. It looked like a boiled sweet. Surely not. But yes, there it was. A sweety that Mr. Minh had given to a young woman who had kept it (presumably for many years and subsequently donated it to the museum after his death. Perhaps it was worshiped in her village before that time. I like to believe there is a village Pagoda somewhere out there that once was used to display the sacred sweety). How the sweety was authenticated however, was not elaborated on.

The next city we visited, Can Tho, a few hours drive south also boasted a military museum. Although on a smaller scale the same pictures and similar memorabilia could be found. My girlfriend and I were sorely disappointed to find the same looking chopsticks, rice bowl and microphone (that the great man used to declare independence of Vietnam) as we saw in Ho Chi Minh City. I felt cheated. Which chopsticks were the authentic ones? But then again, surely the man used more than one set of chopsticks in his life. Perhaps there are as many (authentic) chop sticks as there are museums in Vietnam. Surely his cadres were careful enough to preserve enough authentic chop sticks to ensure every citizen easy access to a local museum to see them. Or perhaps it was a travelling exhibition and we had the good fortune to follow it (inadvertently) from one city to the next.

The museum in Can Tho had an entire second floor but unfortunately the lights didn't work. Pleading (and charming) the two female guards to put the lights on for us to see yet more delights the museum had to offer was pointless. Some of the exhibits were being changed and thus it was closed to tourists. However, one of the guards was more than forthcoming about taking our picture in front of what can only be described as a religious shrine of Mr. Minh at the entrance. Although a little apprehensive of her potential reaction (all museum staff members were dressed in military-looking uniforms and the museum in Ho Chi Minh boasted strict signs about no photography) we adopted the traditional Asian V-sign. To take a more sombre tone would have been too gracious and respectful for the pitiful site behind us.

In the museum (in Ho Chi Minh) one of the few other tourists noted our amusement at some of the exhibits. He told us that there is one in Hanoi which has a collection of his disguises. God I hope we can try them on and reenact scenes from his life.

 

 

Floating Market of Can Tho

7 Mar

Not much time to write but here are a few more pics of our trip down the Mekong Delta floating market(s).

 

 

 

Visiting the Mekong Delta from Can Tho

4 Mar

One of the highlights of southern Vietnam is visiting the Mekong Delta. But after our tour de farce of the Cu Chi Tunnels, we were not eager to go on yet another 30-people excursion. And whatever inclination we might have had to let someone organise everything for us disappeared completely when we met the two Dutch girls we keep bumping into. Their tour to the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City had resembled a floating circus of tourists and touts.

Fortunately, our luxury is time. We could easily spare the three hours it takes to bus down to Can Tho, the largest city on the Mekong Delta. And to be honest, I found it just as fortunate that the city is just out of reach for most of the organised trips.

Can Tho

Though its population is 1.5 million, Can Tho comes across as a sleepy city. There is not much to see except a nice waterfront. But then again, few people come here to stay on land.

 

Can Tho is said to be one of the friendliest places in Vietnam. Perhaps because the locals were keen to keep up their stellar guidebook reputation or simply because tourists were few and far between, Can Tho was a pleasant place.

Besides a few women in front of the harbour (“Wannaboat? Wannaboat? Want a boooat?!?”), the place was hussler-free. Parents even made their children wave at us and greet us with the standard for children in South East Asia, “HEEELLLOOOOOOO”.

And people struck up conversations, which led us to join a local yoga class for free.


 

Cu Chi Tunnels

27 Feb

An elderly Polish woman leans forward to see better. “They are so simple…” She looks down at an array of booby traps aimed at wounding or killing American soldiers. “Terrible”, she says slowly, looking down at a folding chair lowered into the ground, ready to snap together and pierce spikes into its victim when stepped on. “And effective!” Our guide grins.

We are at the site of one of the most famous battlegrounds of the Vietnam war. The Cu Chi tunnel network was crucial to the Viet Cong, allowing soldiers and villagers to hide and move underground as well as launch surprise attacks. 10,000 people lost their lives in the tunnels. The damage they inflicted above ground is not included in the leaflet tourists are given.

The film with footage of the Vietnam War sets the tone early on in our visit. While the rest of the guided tour resembles a visit in a theme park, the “documentary film” shows a glimpse into wartime propaganda.

“Cu Chi, the land of many gardens, peaceful all year round under shady trees … Then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside … Like crazy animals they fired into women and children … The Americans wanted to turn Cu Chi into a dead land, but Cu Chi will never die.”

The Chinese family in our group push their way past other tourists down the narrow trail, leading the way towards the firing range. As elsewhere in the woods, a souvenir shop appears. The sounds of the automatic weapons – M16s and AK47s – make tourists jump as we look at the items on sale. Toy cars made from bullets, necklaces with bullets, planes made of Coca Cola cans, ice cream and “Cu Chi Tunnel” T-Shirts. “You now have 20 minutes to shoot or relax!”, our guide shouts.

Though only two dollars a bullet, we pass on the shooting and save our energy for the tunnels. Of the 250 km maze, a pitch-dark 30 metre stretch is open for tourists to crawl through. Those not inclined to get down on all fours or prone to claustrophobia, may opt for the XL-tunnel, specifically enlarged for tourists and with lights installed.

 

From Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City

26 Feb

Phnom Penh

…which we left on Sunday.

 

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is six hours away in a bus and a world apart from Phnom Penh.

We would have made it there sooner if we, as many others, had stuck a few notes inside our passports and bribed our way past the queue at immigration. As a Scottish man pointed out as the tenth chubby Vietnamese pushed and shoved his way past, there is no incentive to improve. Efficiency would mean that no one would pay bribes.

Anyways. Once you finally make it across the border, the change of scenery is striking. Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City is not a fair comparison, but we will do it nonetheless.

Vietnam's GDP is ten times that of Cambodia, so that bamboo is changed to brick, tuktuks swapped for buses, and the number of people on motorbikes reduced from four to two are actually not that surprising. But, what made us gawk out the window was the colour green. If you need any proof of the efficiency of irrigation, take a bus during the dry season from grey and beige Cambodia to extraordinarily green Vietnam.

After Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City – once Saigon – is easy to visit. Streets and boulevards are lined with trees, there are pavements you can walk on, and the air feels fine to breath. The city centre is largely made up of low and mid-rise buildings and the entire place gives off more of a village vibe than that of a bustling city of eight million people. That every second middle-aged woman sports a pyjama adds to that feeling.

Backpackers have also reemerged, as have the kind of hip shops, bars and restaurants that you find in Bangkok. I must admit, I am happy to be back in “cool Asia”. It never fails to impress and in Ho Chi Minh City, the French legacy also ensures easy access to lovely flakey, buttery croissants for breakfast.

Traffic may be calmer than Phnom Penh, but motorbikes still dash from everywhere. Our first night here, an assertive local woman came to our rescue as we wondered how on earth we would survive an attempt to cross the street. “Want to cross? Come with me!” Following her like scared sheep eying the 20 motorbikes coming directly at us, I asked optimistically, “So..they always stop?” But no. She laughed! “They NEVER stop!”

The trick to survive is to forget about traffic laws and traffic lights (everyone else has). Simply start walking slowly, so that the motorbikes can still whizz around you, and make sure to keep a somewhat predictable pace. Stopping (read: paralysing) is not advisable, as this leaves everyone confused as to your next move.

Although the city itself does not readily remind you that you are in a one-party state, several of the museums serve as stark reminders. More about that later. For now, here are some photos of Ho Chi Minh City.

 

 

'Tous les Jours'. At least every day we are in town.

A French bakery and a heavenly escape from travelling.
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'N2 Heaven' on Ba Huyen Thanh Quan

Choose your tropical fruits, add some cream and watch it transform to ice cream with a burst of liquid nitrogen. Owner and inventor Tony Khuy said it took him two years and 10 pounds to work it out. Best mango ice cream I have ever had. And first and worst brown rice ice cream for my more adventurous boyfriend.