Monday, November 30, 2009

The Mighty Mekong

Delivering fruit....

A home on the banks of the Mekong

Working hard for her money...

The drink delivery man!

The cement shop

Beautiful picture opportunity

Work can be so boring....

Life is tough on the Mekong

Many tourist boats...

Sorry the photos arent great - due to difficult lighting and lack of zoom, these were the best i could get!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Images from the Saigon Streets

For photos of Saigon, scroll down and see below (in previously written posts). They have been added in date order. I have also thrown in some cityscape shots, which aren't that great, but show just how crazy HCMC got! Make sure you scroll down to see pics with their corresponding posts.

Below: No Motorcycle Small Enough

below: Making rubbish look pretty

below: Urban Saigon!

below: Open for business

below: Traffic lights and lanes are overrated, when in a rush, use the footpath!

below: Mr. Ho Chi Minh himself!

Below: the swarm of bees.

below: Nevermind the dog, a motorbike is a man's best friend.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain

US$24? For two hours massage? Two hours? When you hear an offer like that, you know its got to be at least worth considering. It was before 5.00pm too, so I was afforded the 30% discount. One 2 hour massgae thanks. I was abbout to "be loved, long time!".

I was pushed into the change area as quick as you could say "massage" and was told to get changed by a man in pristine white gym shoes, white shorts and white shirt. I had heard on the grapevine that this was the hotel spa that offered "happy endings" to its male customers, so I didn't expect men to greet me - and I certainly didn't expect the starch white get up.

I went into a standard massage room and quietly wondered what kind of things had "gone down" in the room (so to speak). A Vietname girl wearing a tiny skirt came in and she looked pretty unenthusiastic. Looking back, getting a female customer would mean not earning the maximum amount possible - the customer's gender being the reason. Either that, or she wasn't excited by the prospect of giving a 2 hour massage.

In short, she was terrible. She'd give my shoulders a squeeze, she'd attempt "incy wincy spider" on my back, and she'd massage unevenly. By then, even I was not impressed with the concept of staying there for 2 hours. Nevertheless, it has been a long day and I figured that, worse case scenario, I could pretend she wasn't there and sleep.

That was all good and well until she climbed up onto me (I was face down) and stamped right on my thoracic spine - yes, the spine that had been fractured only 5 months ago. Next thing I knew, I had a Vietnanese girl marching up and down my body, from my feet right to my neck. What I had failed to notice when I walked in was the steel bar that was attached to the roof of the massage room. She wasn't relying too heavily on the bar to hold up her weight either - I was receiving the full impact of a crazy, Vietnamese romper stomper and it was frightening!! I couldn't get up because she was too busy playing "balance beam" up and down my back and to be honest, I was scared about how she would react if I told her to get off me.

I sit here now, a day later, brusied from my ankles to my neck. Thankfully, no apparent damage was done to my spine and I can now laugh about it - but heck, it was terrifying! I didn't have the heart to tell her she sucked at her job (pardon the pun, there!), so I gave her a tip of ten bucks and ran like hell out of there.

I can now say that it brought a whole new meaning to "happy ending". The only happy ending I received was the one where she stopped massaging and said "meeez, I finish".

And that ending was the happiest one I'd had in a long time!

Exploring the Mekong

It was quite hard to tell when we were actually out of HCMC and into the provinces. Vietnam is so heavily populated that the residental shacks just continue on for miles and miles. The only way I knew we were coming out of the city was because the colour of the sky was beginning to change from brown to blue. The roads didn't seem to get any quieter or any more orderly though. If anything, it got more complicated - the roads no longer tried to even make lanes for the traffic, we had tractors, more pushbikes, more pedestrians crossing the roads, and more aninmal life (stray dogs, cows and chickens, mainly). Also, given that it was early morning, many people were stopping to grab food from the roadside stands, which meant they stopped dead in the middle of the first 'lane', creating chaos for everyone else around them. The roadside stands even employed young men to go out into the middle of the highway to stop the oncoming traffic so that their customer who had just purchased their food to be able to get back into their truck/car/tractor/whatever without being mown down by others. Given that I expect Vietnam doesn't have a strong insurance sector, I expect those guys are rising their lives just for a few dollars a day. That said, its more disorganised chaos rather than straight out danger. Because there is so much going on, so much coming at you at one time, the elephant and swarm of flies never actually sustain high enough speeds to cause any kind of real damage.

That said, the mood felt like it had changed, from a struggled suffering to a more purpose driven way of life. In between the shacks and the squalored buildings, there were flooded fields that I assume were rice fields. I later find out that there had been significant rain in the past 3 days and the water had yet to drain or evaporate away. So, the journey would have been better if the rice fields were drier, but I didn't let that worry me. Two hours later, we arrived in My Tho (as in, "my toe") and Mr Thuy turned to me with an excited look on his face. "The Mekong!!" I looked around and it was a though we'd gone in a circle and landed back into one of the outer districts of Saigon. I looked at him and said "er...river? Boats? Bamboo houses?" He didn't understand the question but caught the word "boat". He scratched his head and dialled his mobile phone. After a flurry of deep vowelled Vietnamese, he shut off his mobile phone, started the car and off we went again. We arrived at the river, which seemed more like I'd imagined but still wasn't exactly the wild, exotic, ferocious Mekong that I had expected. It was more like another Malaysian fishing town. Nevertheless, he nodded, and dutifully came around and opened the door of the car for me. Before I had a chance to get out, I was greeted by a smiling lady who was wearing a shirt emblazened with a tour company name. This is it, I thought, this is what I read about. Drivers having backhanded deals with tour companies to lure foreigners in. She grabbed my hand and said "come, come". Trying to hide my annoyance at Mr. Thuy, I went with her into the tour company building. She points to a big cardboard map on the wall and says "tours, choice, bee farm, island, village, music". - am not sure if it were my expression or the fact that I didn't agree straight away, but her own expression softened. She smiles and says "what you want to see?" I sighed, and honestly shrugged. "Boats, bamboo" I pointed out a photo from my Lonely Planet I had picked up at the aiport and said "markets". Her eyes lit up, she smiled and said "Cai Be! Mr Thuy take you to Cai Be. Not far." I said unconvincingly "do you have a tour company there too?" She shook her head. "No. You nice girl, very important Australian lady. I can't sell you tour, otherwise you get mad and not see what you want. Not good for you. Not good for me" At that instance, whatever hardened view I may have had about her, Mr Thuy or anyone for that matter, disappeared. I thanked her, promised her that I would come back and do her tour one day soon, and hurried back into the car.

An hour more of the madness that is Vietnamese driving and we turned off onto a gravel road. We begun to head into a village with much denser vegetation, less noise but more pedestrians. Finally, I was beginning to experience my first taste of the Mekong - bustling village sellers, chickens flying everywhere, old village women in traditional Vietnamese garb - this was perfect!

Mr. Thuy and I walked into a shed where the local tour company was based. Soon enough, I had bartered my way onto a private tour of the Mekong with a local guide at a fairly reasonable price. Of course, more reasonable would have been a group tour, but they assumed that because I had arrived in the Vietnamese equivalent of a stretched limosene (ie. A new modelled car), then I deserved nothing but the best. As it turned out, the local guide was actually the Vice Director of the company and he was going to take me around the area. This proved to be the best thing to have happened. He was near-fluent in English, he was easy to converse with and was about to share with me many of the details of the Mekong that I am sure I would not have got if I had gone alone, or with a tour group. Also, because he was well known, the village we visited treated us with great importance, giving us tea, fruit, and local sweets.

Duong and I went up the Mekong River on an old junk boat. As we passed the many sites, the driver would slow down to allow me to take photos, ask questions and take more photos. It was hard to get good shots because the sun was high and there was signifiant glare, but I was able to snap the general surroundings of the Mekong.

The Mekong stretches from the start of Vietnam, at the opening of the South China Sea, and cuts through Vietnam into Cambodia. "The Mighty Mekong" isn't exactly "mighty in that it doesn't flow in rapids - but its mighty because of the sheer anmount of transport and activity that calls it its home. It is relied upon by millioms of Vietnamese and Cambodians, carrying a significant amount of produce from village to village. Hundreds of thousands of locals live ON the Mekong, in old wooden boats. During the fruit season, they sell their produce at floating markets, and then out of season, they go back down the river to harvest some more. All the while, large tug boats and wooden fishing boats deliver goods to the people in these small wooden house boats. Villagers that live on the banks of the Mekong jump in their canoes or junk boats and meet these sellers to collect enough goods in order for them to carry on their own trade, often making cocunut candies, rice paper or rice wine. After seeing the floating markets, Duong took me to see to the local village to see how coconut candy and other local delights are made and packed, and then he took me to a local homestay, where we sat and had fruits and tea.

Three hours of exploring and it was time to head on home. We drank coconut juice fresh from the coconut and sat back and enjoyed the ride back to Cai Be.

I would have loved to have spent more time in Cai Be and the surrounding areas. As it was, the trip to get there was 3 hours in length and I only booked Mr Thuy for 8 hours.

Another 3 hours of hellish HCMC traffic and Mr. Thuy deserved a rather large tip and I deserved a good rest.

Stay tuned for the story of me getting my first (and most likely my last) Vietnamese massage! Ha ha

Til then...


Cheap Thrills

There are two things for certain about Vietnam. Its cheap. Secondly, it never slows down. Ever.

I awoke at 6am, ready for my driver, Mr. Thuy to come and pick me up. He arrived and hussled me into the back of a plush black van with air conditioning - which was a real blessing throughout the day. It became apparent though, by the first hour, that neither Mr. Thuy or I had really any idea what the plan would be for the day. His instructions had been "take her to Mekong" and in his broken English, he managed to point out that the Mekong in fact spread from one side of Vietnam, right across to the border of Cambodia. In other words, I'd best be a little more specific. The thing is, I hadn't read up on the area and so I was not really sure what I wanted to see. All I knew was that I wanted to see women with those funny straw hats, rivers, sprawling rice fields and houses on bamboo stilts. Mr. Thuy nodded and off we continued.

Ho Chin Minh City stretches for miles and miles and its not as if you can literally jump on a freeway and "exit stage left". No, the elephant still needs to get through the swarm of annoying flies, and worse still, around big trucks, cyclos, pushbikes, cows and anything else that is trying to get from A to B. So the drive out of Ho Chi Minh City was a task in itself. The city is, quite literally, an urban dump. Apart from the small District 1, that can convince many tourists that HCMC is a viable, structured financial epicentre, the remaining parts of the city are made up of mud, concrete and random piles of rubbish. That said, having traveled around different parts of Asia now, this is more an Asian existence than a Vietnam-specific one. The fact is, Vietnam, like Indonesia, is over populated. I am yet to go to a place where I have seen so many people, cohabitating in such small areas. They say India is worse, but I still found the outer parts of HCMC so crowded and noisy and filled with people going in all different directions. Everyone has something needing done, so it is quite literally chaos at its most intense. HCMC also is permanently covered in a thick brown haze and everyone out on the streets where cloths over their mouths to protect themselves from the pollution as they drive. Half-built buildings are scattered along the highways, tarmac turns to gravel with no notice, people on pushbikes cross the freeways at their own pace, and horns are constantly blaring. The theory on the roads is "be heard or be roadkill".

I saw so many strange things as we drove out of the city. Single scooters carrying 8 crates of glass bottled coca cola, families of four all shoved onto one motorbike, a baby no older than 6 months being carried by a woman on a motorbike while her husband drove, arms wrapped around the baby and simply relying on balance. I saw cows on leashes, I saw cock fighting by the side of the was such an eye opener!

Stay tuned for my next post as I talk about my trip down the Mekong River in a wooden boat!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Tour of Duty

No, I refuse to start with "Good Morning, Vietnam!" Firstly, its not morning, its night, and secondly, it would just be ridiculously unoriginal.

Wow! Thank goodness I didn't bother listening to the vast number of Ho Chi Minh City critics out there! Yes, travel is often a mixed bag, and its what you make of it, but the anti-HCMC sentiment had come in thick and fast since I made the grand announcement that I was going to go. Criticisms ranged from it being dangerous, to being boring. The Vietnamese were said to be dodgy and dishonest and downright unfriendly. Well, I must say that my experience has been quite different to any of this. Yes, I think Ho Chi Minh City has its crime and it can happen at any time, but I kept my wits about me. I think HCMC definitely has the potential to be boring, because apart from the war history, there aren't too many aesthetically great things about it - no grand buildings, not too many obvious religious places of significance on the main track and it certainly doesn't ooze Historical Viet culture per se. However, when you think about the fact that its been the world's favourite pass time to shell and mortar this city since goodness knows when, HCMC aint doin that bad!

I guess the difference is between here and Bangkok is that Bangkok has little reason for being a crappy hell hole of a dump (in my opinion). Vietname has gone through an incredible difficult recent past and many people here look tired and battle weary - but still work hard. In Bangkok, there's a carelessness about it. I don't find the Vietnamese as confronting as the Bangkok Thais (keep in mind Thais from Bangkok are VERY different to Thais from, say, Phuket or Krabi, in the south). While the Vietnamese are hardened, and difficult to engage with, they are still pleasant and for the most part, happy to see you.

Today, I arrived into HCMC airport and was surprised to see that the airport was calm, orderly and quiet. Admittedly, it was 8am but it was still not as I expected. I wasn't hassled by taxi touts, I was not shuffled into any kind of queue, I just walked straight up, into a cab and then off I went. The taxi ride was slow and for a significant part of the journey, the taxi driver continously beeped his horn - just like the 2000 motorcycles and cars surrounding him. With no real road rules, and far too many motorised scooters, HCMC is somewhat complicated to navigate. Its often the case that you, with the flow of traffic, will come up against a steady flow of scooters coming down your side of the road, across pavements and sideways in between whatever gaps you can find. HCMC is more or less about "every scooter-man for themselves". It certainly doesn't pay to have a car, because its like an elephant trying to move amongst a swarm of flies.

I checked into the hotel and off it was then to explore the nearby sights, including the Reunification Palace (often seen as a symbol of the Viet independence), the french inspired Notre Dame Cathedral (Vietnam was ruled by the French, pre-1970's) and then a few smaller sites here and there. Then it was off to grab lunch with my colleague who is based in HCMC - lunch which turned into a bottle of wine and a long afternoon of chats and laughter about living in HCMC - she is of indian descent but has worked all around the world). Then I said goodbye to her and it was off to the markets to try my hand at some bartering, collecting a few items for christmas presents. I pray the Australian customs will be kind to me and allow me to bring it all in!

Then, due to my rule of "no night time fun" whem traveling alone, I settled into my hotel room at dusk, ready for an action packed day tomorrow. I've arranged for a driver to take me down to the Mekong Delta - where the real Vietnam begins! Rice paddies, floating markets and cultural villages. Its a bit of a pricey exercise to get a private driver but I just didn't want to risk getting stuck on some dodgy half-baked local tour to see sights and get shafted because of back door deals being done by the operators.

Oh, how I love traveling. It gives me a purpose, it clears my head, it opens my eyes to what this world is really about.

Blessed are the ones that travel, my friends.


(below: Notre Dame Cathedral, a replica made by the French when they were running Vietnam)

(below: the Gates of the Reunification Palace, where the army tanks famously crashed through and signified the defeat of the South Vietnamese in around 1975)

(below: The Reunification Palace, or otherwise known as "Independence Palace")

(below: not sure of this building but its a great example of French-influenced architecture prior to the French leaving Vietnam in the 1950's)

(below: More French inspired architecture, this time as the Opera House)


In and Around the Reunification Palace, Saigon

below: The Grounds of the Palace

below: "Where's Goose?" A replica of an American fighter jet;

below: A replica of the army tank that crashed through the gates;

below: Sponsored by Bridgestone

below: Boys and their big toys;

below: More my style of things - the intricate details of the ceramics surrounding the Palace

below: The interior decorating of the Sitting Room

Below: The parliamentary sitting room

below: Mr. Ho Chi Minh!

below: Pottery that is now worth a fortune

below: Amazing designs on the carpets

below: The throne room...or something similar!

below: take your pick...

below: the equivalent to the Oval Office

below: the Strategy Room's important telephones (how 1970's! we had a green one - in fact, we still do!)

below: Old books from the library

below: More 1970's design

below: the Vietnamese equivalent of the "doily"

below: The hallowed halls of the Palace

below: Vietnamese print

below: Dumped in the Palace gutter. Precious vietnamese antiques.


Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Miss Saigon

The saying is true - go in with low expectations and you will always be delightfully surprised.

Having spent my first half a day in Ho Chi Minh City (otherwise known as Saigon), I am ready to admit that this place has not grated on me yet.

While Bangkok is dirty, hot, crazy and dishonest, there is definitely something almost mythical about Saigon. Its hot, dirty and crazy but I am yet to be ripped off as I would expect to have been by now. Sure, the taxi driver asked for a tip but heck, if I had to negotiate my way around HCMC, I'd be asking for some more money too. Heat, intensity and filth aside, the " Saigon" that captures the imagination is the Saigon of war time.

I need not go into too much detail as yet about Vietnam's war history, but its safe to say for the purposes of this blog entry, that Vietnam was torn into shreds from one end to the other as a result of the French pulling out, the Viet Cong coming in, the Americans getting involved and the Americans trying to get themselves "uninvolved" when their mission fell to pieces.

You imagine the streets in war time, you can almost feel the street walls whispering tales of years gone by...this is a city in a country that simply cannot let go of its war identity.

(photo top: my hotel, the Continental Hotel, most famous as being where the war-time movie The Quiet American was filmed; photo below: the streets of Ho Chin Minh City, or otherwise known as Saigon)