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Wes & Ange Gray’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 30 Aug 2008

Location: Saigon, Vietnam

MapSo we had now bid the clear waters of Nha Trang behind and were headed for Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as a lot of people still call it). We dropped our bags in our extremely small room with no windows and headed straight out for some sightseeing.
The first attraction we made our way to was the War Remnants Museum. In this museum it tells the story of the Vietnam/US war, naturally from the Vietnamese story which was really enjoyable. There is also a heap of tanks, jets, helicopters and bombs on show. One of the most interesting exhibits was the display of the photographers work who covered the war, there was many captions under the photos stating that this was the last photo taken by the photographer before they died (very sad and you don’t really think about the photographers when you think of war). The exhibit also showed the effects of the use of Agent Orange which was a real eye opener and a bit of tear jerker for a certain emotional traveller.
After the museum we dodged many a cyclo driver and headed to the Reunification Palace but we missed the 4pm close off so we would have to wait till another time. Next stop was the Ben Thanh Market but due to the stifling heat and stall owners literally dragging you into their stores, we weren’t in the mood and didn’t last long. We made a bee line for our hotel to rest up before we headed out for dinner and a few drinks.

For dinner we found a cheap little restaurant near our hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao (backpackers) area. Most restaurants in Vietnam in the tourist areas that don’t specialise in any particular cuisine do everything from Vietnamese, Italian, Thai and most western dishes. But we found that the Vietnamese’s’ take on pizza and pastas especially is very... interesting and it is far better to stick to the local food. It was then off to a storey bar for a couple of buy 1 get 1 free beers for Wes and supposedly buy 1 get 1 free cocktails for Ange, but when we got the bill the cocktails they were now buy 2 get 1 free. So after a debate over the bill with the drug-affected manager, we left and headed for a night in our cell/room. The next morning due to our lack of sleep courtesy of the small, almost single sized bed, we enquired about a room with 2 single beds, but our hotel didn’t have any available so we shifted to another hotel around the corner owned by the same people for a bigger room and two single beds.

After sorting out our accommodation, we organised our Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta tours before setting out to explore more of the city. We walked around the streets, dodging the 3.5 million registered motorbikes of Saigon (plus the unknown amount of unregistered) before finding ourselves at the Saigon Saigon Bar at the Caravelle Hotel for a non-alcoholic drink (because that’s all we could afford there... crazy prices!!)

In the afternoon whilst Wes had a business meeting, Ange spent her time at the Ben Thanh Markets for some more browsing. That evening following an average Italian meal we found our way over to the Blue Gecko Bar for the Friday night NRL clash between Wes’s Dragons and the Broncos. It was here that we got to see more of the old western ‘gentlemen’ shamelessly flirting with the young Asian wait staff, which never ceases to amaze us (Ange more so) how teenage like these old men act and how in Australia, most of these men would be up for sexual assault.

We were up nice and early the next morning to head out for our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, which was around 70km out of HCMC. The first part of the tour we sat in one of the old chambers on the first level of the tunnels which was basically like a bunker, where we watched an old communist propaganda film about the Cu Chi town and its “heroic American killers” who fought in the tunnels. It was pretty amazing to see just how well the tunnels entrances were hidden just by foliage on the ground, you honestly couldn’t tell where they were. Halfway through the tour, there was a rest stop where you could purchase refreshments or choose to fire AK47s and M16 guns. We chose an AK-47. Whilst Wes enjoyed the experience, Ange didn’t and felt scared. Wes till won’t be running off to purchase a firearm anytime soon...both our ears were still ringing well into the afternoon. Next stop on the tour was what we had come for, exploring the actual tunnels! We still don’t know how people stayed down underground for weeks on end. At times we both had to really try and control our fear as panic began setting in. It was hot, tight and completely pitch black. You literally could only squat or crawl through the tunnels, losing all sense of direction, it became really hard to breath, we made our way to the first exit point at the 30mtr mark.... that was enough for us! What was even more astonishing was the tunnels had been made bigger to accommodate foreign tourists, Wes’s shoulders were scrapping along the sides of the tunnels. As in every tour, there is an idiot who‘s stupidity defies belief. One Singaporean fella aimlessly wandered into one of the dark bunkers and fell down the hole where the entrance is to the tunnels underground - he dislocated his shoulder. Once freed from the hole, the guy’s equally stupid partner began pulling him to receive medical attraction by the arm attached to the dislocated shoulder. An unfortunate incident for the dude, but perhaps he should have been just a little more aware of what’s around him before he begins taking photos.

When we arrived back in Saigon and got off the bus at the War Remnants Museum to take the short walk in the rain to the Reunification Palace to hopefully have a look through this time. The palace was quite grand in a 1970s style, but the basement was quite interesting with the president’s wartime bedroom, the shooting gallery and countless nooks and crannies where obvious interrogation/beatings would have taken place.

After all our excitement of the day we decided to have a quiet dinner and alcohol free night, retiring to bed early. The next morning after we moved hotel again, this time our current hotel had double booked our room. We headed out to Dam Sen Water Park for a day of water sliding in the pouring rain. With the park holding about 10,000 locals and about 6 foreigners, it was initially daunting with everyone staring at us. Particularly Ange in her bikini and Wes with his hairy chest. We found most of the local kids calling out to say hello and then running off giggling, in the end, they just walked to talk to us and see where we were from. The water park was a lot of fun even with the rain and Ange hurting her elbow on the ride we dubbed the ‘toilet bowl’. It was crazy just how many people filled the rides especially the wave pool and slow rapids.

After we could take no more rain and staring eyes we got a taxi back through the flooded streets to our hotel for an afternoon of domestic chores. For dinner we decided to head back to the Go 2 Bar, the scene of the cocktail scandal from a few nights earlier, to sample the rooftop do-your-own BBQ and buy 1 get 1 free beers. The BBQs were pretty cool as each table had a little hotplate in the centre were you could cook your own meals. We went for the marinated beef and chilli prawns. We spent the night with a couple of games of cards, cooking up a feast while Ange sipped her 2 get 1 free margaritas and Wes on his $2 coronas. The evening was a good way to end our very enjoyable stay in Saigon as the next day we were off on our Mekong Delta tour.

Wes got his last Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) fix for breakfast for the bargain price of 20,000 dong at a little street stall, where he chop sticked and slurped his Pho down on the side of the road with some little old ladies... very Vietnamese!

We got onto the bus for the Mekong Delta and it didn’t take us long to make new friends, a Scottish couple – Andy & Fiona and just to prove how small the world is, two girls, one from Hamilton and one from Lambton (just up the road!)

First stop was the village of Cai Be to see the floating markets where the local bought, sold and exchanged all sorts of goods between their boats. After this we got off the boat to have a look around at the locals making coconut candy and rice paper, before we headed to a small island for a lunch that consisted of some questionable meat. When we had finished lunch we were free to have a look around whilst we waited for the out of tone local musicians to begin. There was a crocodile farm where you could feed them big chunks of meat on a hook which effectively meant you could catch the crocs. After a while of watching a brattish English kid annoying the crocs with an empty hook and his stupid mother encouraging his actions, we left to find a dam that had a constant movement of the writhing catfish. It was during the musical performance that the charcoal clouds rumbled over the delta and made our short 30 min boat ride to Vinhlong to get on the bus, a very wet one. During this bus ride enroute to Chau Doc we experienced the first of a few porkies told by the guide when he mentioned we had an hour to the ferry that was used to cross the river. 2 and half hours later of travelling down a road more suited to 4 wheel driving our bus arrived at the ferry. At least the 1 hour after the ferry ride to Chau Doc was a little smoother.

We arrived into Chau Doc around 7.30pm and unfortunately the hotel we were meant to stay in had enough rooms for half the people on the tour. So while all the locals in the group managed to secure a room at the promised hotel, all the western backpackers were shifted to a place around the corner which the guide ensured was the same standard as the other, but eyebrows were raised when the guide hurriedly retreated to the original accommodation. Even though the room wasn’t the best, we had early start the next morning as our trusty guide informed us of a 6am wake up knock at the door (which never happened) for a 6.15am start, we decided to set the alarm for a 5.30am wake up before covering ourselves in aeroguard to protect us from the countless mozzies, insects and ants and went to sleep. Actually that night for dinner at a restaurant the guide recommended, we had our last Vietnamese dinner which pretty much was reflective of our time in Vietnam, whilst our “starters” of spring rolls were probably the best we had ever had, our mains were the worst Vietnam had to offer.

Vietnam... at times the best place ever and at times the most frustrating place ever!!!
The next morning, as mentioned, an early start for our last day in Vietnam. Wes’s first task was to change our remaining Vietnamese dong (around $70 US) into US dollar. The previous evening our guide mentioned we could change with his colleague escorting us on the boat to Cambodia. But in the morning, Wes decided he wanted to change the money legitimately at the hotel rather than with some random dude on the boat. Well our guide was having none of this, changing his story a number of times in less than a minute, from “not enough time to the go to the hotel” , “better exchange rate on the boat”, “the hotel doesn’t do it” and finally “it is illegal to change dong into US” which considering that we changed dong to us at the guide’s head office the day before, seemed a little odd! In the end, rather than lining the pockets of the guide and his mate on the bat, we struck a deal with the two Newcastle girls who were staying on in Vietnam... after all, us Novocastrians have to stick together!

The first site of the day was a traditional row boat trip to visit the floating houses with the caged fish breeding. It was unbelievable just how many catfish were rammed into the cages and at feeding time they were literally jumping out of the opening of the cage onto the floor of the floating house. Although we fed the fish, the fish pellets, it is common knowledge that all the waste including the toilet is dumped into the cage, Wes won’t be tucking into any basa fillets imported from Vietnam for a while!

Next was about a 45 min row boat ride to minority village, our girl who was rowing our boat was a sweetie and even gave Wes a go but we suspected that she just wanted a rest, as it was quite hard work, on top of trying to keep your balance. After the village, it was time to bid the Newcastle girls (who were doing the 2 night tour) farewell and jump on the boat to go up the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. In hindsight we should have heard the alarm bells from the previous days bus ride, but our guide insisted numerous times that our trip would be a 2 hour ride to the border, a new boat after the border for 1 hour before a 1 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh as stated in the tour brochure. The first boat wasn’t too bad as it only went over schedule by an hour and the boat was a reasonable size. What was more concerning was when our man escorting us to the border jumped off the boat halfway along the river and disappeared into the jungle with all the passengers’ passports... we were hoping to see him again!
We arrived at the border to be herded into a restaurant where we were greeted by our jungle passport man and following a short boat ride to the Cambodian checkpoint for our passport processing, we jumped on the extremely small, noisy and diesel fume riddled boat for our 1 hour trip or so we thought…..
The boat ride was the original slow boat to Cambodia and took 4 hours to reach our bus connection. What made the trip even more painful was when it rained for 45 minutes, which meant all the tarps came down, so blocking any view of the river scenery and fresh air reaching the boats captives. When the rain passed the only upside was all the kids on the bank of the river waving at us as we chugged down the Mekong. Upon reaching Phnom Phenh many hours later than described in the tour company’s brochure, we decided to pass on the free nights’ accommodation which was part of the tour and protest against Sinh Cafes (Tour Company) and find our own place to stay. That night after finding a place (Riverstar Hotel) which was recommended to us by Andrew and Steph in Hoi An, We found a cheap place to eat and then bumped into our lovely Scottish friends for a quiet couple of drinks before retiring to bed.