Sunday, January 27, 2013

Home to Phnom Penh

We enjoyed our six days in Vietnam.  But then, we have a pretty good time wherever we are! 
Boarding the bus for our trip home to Cambodia.  Jimmy and Nine looked ready for our next adventure.  


Saigon was similar to Phnom Penh in many respects.  Both Vietnam and Cambodia have their share of "overloads."


And both have plenty of colorful street vendors.

 Many in both cities wear masks to cut down on the pollutants they inhale.

But in Vietnam, conical straw hats are very common; in Cambodia almost no one wears them.


Both Saigon and Phnom Penh have white-knuckle traffic.

However, so far in our time on the road we have only seen one accident.  As we prepared to leave Saigon, this young woman crashed her moto right in front of our hotel.   Traffic wasn't the problem, though, she lost control of her bike trying to avoid the dog you can see in the background high-tailing it to the other side of the street.
Plenty of witnesses to the crash rushed to help her.  Fortunately neither she nor her moto appeared badly damaged and she soon remounted her bike and continued on her way.

In general, the Vietnamese people we encountered did not seem as happy as the Cambodians.  One-on-one, they were gracious and welcoming, but we didn't see as many smiles as we do in Cambodia. The Vietnamese people seem to be hard-working and industrious, but their general demeanor was less upbeat in our opinion.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cu Chi Tunnels and Saigon City Tour

Our first full day in Saigon was a relaxing one.  Since we arrived after dark the night before, we enjoyed getting acquainted with the city and planning sightseeing trips.  Here are views of the city and the street below taken from our fourth-floor hotel window.  

Just opposite the hotel is the New Pearl Restaurant...a great spot for breakfast, cocktails and dinner.  

John and I decided that the traffic in Saigon is as bad, if not worse than in Phnom Penh.  We ventured out, but tried to find a group of locals so we could tag along as we crossed the streets.

The following morning, John and I, Jimmy and Nine were joined by friends Steve and Liz from our tour group.  Along with a guide and driver, we toured the infamous Cu Chi tunnels approximately 70 kilometers outside Saigon.  The tunnels are part of a vast network of  underground passages, including living quarters, medical facilities and former weapons caches.  They are located at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and were used by the Viet Cong guerrillas during the Vietnam War. 

When I say "toured" it's a misnomer.  The tunnels were barely large enough to allow us to pass single file.  And at some places we had to bend double to get through.  We were told that the section open to tourists has been enlarged to twice as wide and twice as high as originally built.  Low-power lights have also been installed.  Here is one of the tunnel entrances as it would have appeared during the war.  It is almost invisible. 

The following photos are examples of how smoke from cooking fires in the tunnels was dispersed, and how a ventilation tube would have been camouflaged.

We made our way through a section of the tunnels approximately 25 yards long, then exited at the first opportunity.  The guidebook says, "NOTE:  People with heart-complications or claustrophobia should not go through the tunnels.  Going down and have some photos taken should be fine!"  They weren't kidding.  Here is a shot of Liz emerging from the tunnel complex. 

The Cu Chi tour was interesting if propaganda-filled. Our guide was a former South Vietnamese communications officer and was well-versed in the country's history. Following the war, he spent three years in a "re-education camp" before he was released to continue with his life. He quietly told us that much of what we would see on the tour would be propaganda. He was right. The grounds around the tunnel complex had examples of the booby traps the VC employed during the war and displays dedicated to the "heroic" VC guerrillas

A disabled US tank was prominently displayed, and one stop on the tour was a post-Vietnamese War propaganda film. B-52 bomb craters were clearly marked.

The tour was a sobering look at part of our country's history than many would like to forget. However, all four of us either served or knew those who did, and we have a new respect for the sacrifices they made.

Upon our return to Saigon, we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant. Just as we finished our meal and began our city tour, the skies opened and the rain came down in torrents.  As a result, we had to adjust our schedule somewhat and didn't get to visit everything we wanted.

After a while the skies cleared and we resumed our tour. Parts of Saigon are beautiful. Wide boulevards are decorated with large flowers, and the parks are carefully manicured.  However, advertisements are everywhere and sometimes detract!

Saigon was not bombed during the Vietnam War.  As a result, many of the beautiful old buildings, like the Notre Dame Cathedral, have been preserved,

We toured the War Remnants Museum (filled with more propaganda, as well as photographs from the War and a number of aircraft).  The Reunification Palace was another tour stop, but we didn't go inside because of time constraints.  Completed in 1966, it was built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, which was completed in 1873 and named for King Norodom of Cambodia. During the Vietnam War, the Palace was bombed and partially destroyed in an attempted coup against President Diem, and later rebuilt.

Another stop on our city tour was shop making and selling lacquer ware.  The working conditions for the artisans were difficult at best.


However, the workmanship was remarkable.   I especially liked  the designs on these two pieces.

For our last night in Saigon, the six of us took a taxi to Ngon, a popular Vietnamese restaurant recommended by Liz and Steve's Lonely Planet guidebook.  Similar to a restaurant we like in Phnom Penh, dishes are prepared at "kitchens" located on the restaurant's perimeter, each one responsible for a different dish or type of food. 



Nine and I walked around to see what our culinary options were.  We chose not to order the roast chicken.


 We pigged out, said goodbye to Steve and Liz, and rolled into bed.

Monday, January 21, 2013

To Saigon

After lunch on January 7, we boarded our bus for Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly called Saigon.  Our driver was much better than the previous one, and we didn't spend the entire trip holding our collective breath in fear for our lives, thank goodness.  

There were some interesting sights along the way.

We admired this moto driver's ingenious method for transporting tires,

and this one's ability to keep his moto and refrigerator upright.


The vehicle below is the Vietnamese version of a wheelchair for outdoor travel.  It is propelled by pumping the steering column forward and backward, and moves along quite briskly.
About halfway to Saigon we stopped to stretch our legs and let off passengers .  These half-grown pups in the parking lot treated us to a world-class dog tussel while we waited.

Upon arriving in Saigon, we had our third "Oh No!" hotel experience.  Despite having been assured that our hotel was "3 stars," and the best available, we found that we had been booked into an upper floor of a backpacker's hostel with no windows and no elevator.  Being certified "old farts,"  we were unwilling to rough it for a third night.  Fortunately John found a very nice hotel just across the street...and for only $40 per night.  We happily gave up our deposit and moved into the New Pearl Hotel where we spent the next three nights there while we explored the city.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Floating Market and a Noodle "Factory"

We were up again at 5:00 am to get ready for an early-morning boat ride to visit Cai Rang floating market.  Intermittent showers and mist made photography difficult,  but we did get a few good shots.  

Unlike the floating market John and I visited last year in Thailand, this is more of a wholesale market.  Most of the boats are larger and carry a large amount of produce.  They advertise the fruits and vegetables they are selling by hoisting samples on bamboo poles.  


Jicama is the vegetable advertised by this display.  

Our boat threaded its way through the market, with frequent stops to allow passengers to buy coffee, soft drinks, bananas and pineapple from vendors on smaller craft.  This woman and her son were doing a good business in bananas and pineapple.  

She was expert in steering her boat with her feet while her son with his infectious grin charmed the tourists and made many sales.  

Families live aboard  the larger boats, along with their chickens and dogs.  The Vietnamese are rumored to consider dog a culinary delicacy.  However, all the dogs we saw were obviously pets, thank goodness.  The chickens I'm not so sure about.  


 Our guide (his father lives in Houston) said that cock fighting is widespread.


After visiting the market, we then walked through a small village where they were making rice noodles.  One person poured batter (made from 50% rice flour and 50% tapioca flour) onto a cheesecloth spread over a slow fire. 



After a couple of minutes, the batter was cooked, and the woman was expert in using this wicker tool to transfer the thin circles to a straw mat to dry.  


After drying they were passed through a machine that sliced them into the rice "threads" or cellophane noodles.  It was a labor-intensive process, but quite interesting.

We returned to our hotel along the Mekong and its canals, taking a last look at the homes along its banks.

We had a lovely lunch in a riverside restaurant, then stopped for a passionfruit smoothie and a last look at our goldfish friends at Glory of New York Spa-Cafe.

We were only too glad to check out of our hotel and board our bus for Ho Chi Minh City (more commonly known as Saigon).