December 16, 2012

The Final Leg

After the fun we had visiting the Angkor temples in Cambodia, it was time to enter back into Vietnam for the final leg of our trip. From Phnom Penh, we took a boat down the Mekong River and spent the next five days traveling through Vietnam's Mekong Delta.   

The delta itself is interesting to see…it's unfathomable how many rivers, canals, and tributaries there are. The water is accentuated with thick blankets of water hyacinth.

The flooding that occurs in the delta every year provides an extremely fertile environment. The rice farmers in this region get three harvests a year – much more lucrative than the measly one harvest the farmers in Northern Vietnam receive.  The rice fields are abuzz with dragonflies and are occasionally dotted with ancestral graves.

In my head I had pictured the Mekong Delta as pure farmland, but there are actually some substantial cities. 

It feels different here from the rest of Vietnam. The women no longer carry baskets of food slung over their shoulders. The temples are decked out in sequins with laser lights spinning around the deities' heads. There are roadside cafes with nothing but hammocks.

Within the delta, life was not all that different as we hopped from Chau Doc to Can Tho to My Tho and finally Ben Tre. There are riverside promenades, shanty houses built on bamboo poles, and cock-fighting.

We saw firsthand how these people are seriously living off the river. They use the water for bathing, cleaning, cooking, and plumbing (if you know what I mean). Some of them have built their houses on top of little row boats. Others have fish farms literally underneath their floor boards. 

The Vietnamese are early to bed, early to rise. We had some crack-of-dawn call times, but at least we got to see amazing sunrises over the Mekong. 

In the morning hours, just about every town has a floating market on the river where normal land-based market vendors go to buy their products. 

There's a boat for every fruit or vegetable, and they advertise their goods by hanging a sample from a bamboo pole on the bow of the boat.

In Can Tho we hired a guide to see a few of the floating markets. Our favorite was actually the smallest one – Phong Dien – where it's like bumper cars navigating through the sea of boats. 

Along the way we also visited a noodle factory where much of the labor is still done by hand.

Later on we cruised through the canals, and to pass the time, our guide and boat driver decked us out in hand-woven water coconut accessories.

In My Tho we rented a motorcycle and cruised on the narrow canal-side paths and under the coconut groves around Ben Tre.

This area of Vietnam is largely dominated by tour companies, so traveling independently through the Mekong Delta is not an easy thing to do. There's just not much of an infrastructure to help foreigners, and in some cities, maybe we only met one adult who spoke English. We really gave ourselves a challenge right up until the end! I can't tell you how many times we wanted to take the easy way out and just go straight to Saigon. But when all was said and done, we were glad we stuck it out. Over 5 days I think we saw less than 10 tourists.

The kids of the Mekong Delta are sooo friendly and the majority of them know a lot of English. They made us feel like celebrities when they loved to wave at us and sometimes got very giggly around us. One night we were along the river having a bottle of Vietnamese wine (not recommended) and got bombarded by a class of English students. Their teacher told us that they were “very lucky to find us”. I'm pretty sure they go tourist-hunting in the park every evening.

The adults of the Mekong Delta don't seem as hardened by tourists (yet), and so we weren't pestered to buy things as much. That said, there was not a day that went by that we weren't taken advantage of in some way. The kicker was when our motorcycle taxi drivers dropped us off at our hotel in My Tho. We were kindly notified two hours later that they had stuck around to have coffees and then charged them to our room! The worst part was that the hotel facilitated this and honestly expected us to pay for it. These people are masters of making us feel guilty when they're the ones ripping us off. It's a tricky game of psychology and it always works in their favor.

On that note, it was time to push on to our final destination, Ho Chi Minh City. In Southern Vietnam everyone still refers to it as Saigon, so I will too. When we arrived in Saigon and stepped off the bus for the last time, we both felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. After such a long and amazing journey, we had made it!

We treated ourselves to a nice hotel room and spent our last six days leisurely exploring the city. There are lots of European influences like tree-lined boulevards, shady parks, and it's much cleaner than we expected. 

This is no Bangkok or ShanghaiThe skyline only has a handful of skyscrapers, and we've gone almost everywhere on foot.

It's actually a very pleasant large city, even if it looked like we had been through an urban battlefield at the end of the day.

In Saigon there are 10 million people, 5 million motorbikes, and only 800,000 cars. I'm pretty sure 1 million of the motorbikes were at this intersection on Sunday night.

The motorbike is definitely the status symbol. As one local told us, the better the motorbike, the better the girlfriend.

Everyone always says that Saigon's traffic is worse than Hanoi's. Yes, I agree that there is more quantity. When we cross the street we see a wall of motorbikes aimed at us. But Hanoi's streets are narrower and pedestrians are forced to share the road. We've appreciated the luxury of sidewalks here.

After the Mekong Delta, Saigon almost felt too easy. We've had endless options for food, we could communicate semi-effectively, and prices were labeled.

Christmas is in full swing in Saigon. It feels so funny to take touristy photos in front of our own holiday's displays, but it's just incredibly unusual for us to see all of this stuff. 

It almost feels as though we're cheating ourselves out of the initial excitement of Western pleasures waiting for us at home, but it’s impossible to escape it. Christmas music is piped along the streets, the little kids are dressed up like Santa Claus, and every big building is completely decked out.

At night, the girls of Saigon migrate en masse to the shopping centers and hotels to pose with the Christmas decorations. They wear tiny red dresses and strike the most embarrassing glamor shot poses. You'd think that for a self photo shoot, the park would be an ideal spot, but no. Designer store windows continue to win out. Sometimes they couldn't even be bothered to wait in line at a legitimate window. The Ralph Lauren Coming Soon sign will just have to do.

Aside from the fun people watching, Saigon also gave us another perspective to the American/Vietnam war. We made a trip to the countryside where the Cu Chi Tunnels housed 250 kilometers of shelter for the guerrilla fighters of the North.

They've actually widened the tunnels so that us fat Western tourists can squeeze through. We crouched for 100 meters in the claustrophobic and humid tunnels, and that's about all we could take.

In Saigon there's the War Remnants Museum which focuses not so much on the war itself, but rather on the aftermath of the war. We shuttered at photos of Agent Orange victims…many of them children born of infected soldiers, with the most unusual and hideous malformations you'd ever see. The chemicals affect DNA, so everybody's disfigurement is completely unique. In this particular museum there were a lot of very serious phrases used like “war crimes, violation of human rights, ethics and international law”.

As a result of the war 60,000 American soldiers died. 3 million Vietnamese died, and 2 million of those were civilians. And for what? To stop the spread of communism in a country that barely feels communist. There is so much to this complicated war, and it's hard to ever feel like we've gotten the entire story.

To celebrate our last two nights, we headed to a rooftop bar to take in the street scene from high above. We just marveled at the mess of traffic below.

Saigon was the perfect place to end our trip. We learned, we laughed, and we relaxed leading up to our final flight. It was way back in April when we made this flight - a 777, which Steve is pretty excited about. I can still remember sitting in our hotel room in Bolivia when we hit the purchase button. So much has happened between then and now.

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