Sunday, 31 October 2010

Arrived in Hoi An

The overnight train from Saigon pulled into Danang around lunchtime on 30th Oct and as we disembarked I noticed there were two other westerners in the same rail carriage as me who I hadn't seen during the trip from Saigon.
A few minutes later I was out the front of the train station negotiating with a taxi driver to take me the 30km to Hoi An, and the same western couple approached me and mentioned to me that they were also going to Hoi An and we could all share a taxi.  Good idea.  So we all jumped in and away we went.
We had a good chat during the 45-60 minutes it took to travel to Hoi An.  Their names were Marta and Ulrick and they were a young married Polish couple travelling on holiday through Cambodia and Vietnam for a few weeks before returning to Poland.
Then, randomly the taxi driver pulled over and a local lady waiting at the side of the road asked if she could also get in the taxi.  We were all a bit puzzled about this, and it turned out the lady was the Taxi driver's sister who also needed a lift into Hoi An.  Eventually she jumped in and away we all went again.  Her name was Tam and she worked at one of the many tailor shops in Hoi An.  She was very friendly and outgoing. Quite a character.  She made sure we had the address of her shop, and I wanted some clothes made for me in Hoi An so I thought I might as well check her shop out among others.
The taxi dropped off my new aquaintences and then finally dropped me at my hotel.  I settled in, had some food and a bit of rest and a few hours later decided to go for a walk through the old part of town.
After wandering around this beautiful town for a while, a motorbike whizzed past me and then came to a screaming stop.  The passenger on the back of the bike jumped off and came running towards me waving.  When she got close enough I could hear her ask "Hello! You remember me??" and my first instinct was to assume she had either made a mistake or this was some elaborate scam.
But when she took her helmet off I *did* recognise her!  It was Tam the taxi driver's sister!  She said she was on her way to her shop now and asked if I wanted to take a look at her clothes.  I was heading in the direction of the markets anyway, so I said ok.  She promptly walked out into the road and stopped the first motorbike that came by (it didn't seem to matter much to her who it was), told me to jump on the back of that bike, told the rider to follow her, and then sped off!  So off we went too.  It seems not many people say no to Tam, she's just that kind of lady.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Overnight train - Saigon to Danang

I caught the overnight train from Saigon to Danang in order to spend some time in Hoi An, a town located on the Vietnam coast about mid-way between Saigon in the south and Hanoi in the north. Danang was where the first US forces landed in Vietnam during the war, and the 30-odd Km coastline between Danang and Hoi An is famously known as China Beach.
This is to be the first of many overnight train rides on my travels, so I was keen to Suss things out a bit to prepare for some of the other legs.
I took a berth in a soft sleeper cabin, which features 4 beds to a cabin. In theory this means sharing with 3 other people, but in reality there were 6 of us who slept in that cabin, and it was very stuffy in the heat with non-functional air conditioning.
I was sharing with a man, three ladies and a baby, and none of them could speak a word of English (and I speak no Vietnamese). Apart for the occasional miming game to try to communicate thing such as the location of the food trolly, and plenty of polite smiles and nods and the odd photo shared along the way, I had most of time to myself. And to be honest I really enjoyed it. Two of the ladies chatted constantly throughout the entire trip which didn't bother me, and the mother doted over her baby (who seemed amazingly placid and happy). The man pretty much kept to himself.
I wandered up and down the train a bit and met a few friendly people but sadly the communication barrier was too great to go much beyond sign language. Nevermind, it was still a fascinating ride and reassuring that I won't be driven crazy during the longer stretches of my trans-siberian trip later on.

Last day in Saigon

Well today was my last day in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. What an amazing place it turned out to be. I couldn't imagine I would have gotten so much from it. Thanks Uncle Ho!
I'm not sure how much of my experience was due to the city itself and more importantly its people, and how much was due to my own state of mind when I arrived.
Because of all the preparation and goings-on of things in my own life back in Australia prior to me leaving, I definitely arrived here ready to immerse myself in something new, and that attitude combined with the flexibility of traveling alone with no set itinerary enabled me to be totally spontaneous. Vietnam has exceeded every expectation so far, and I'm also learning a lot about how to travel in a way that suits me better as well.
As far as today went, I went for another final exploration around the city on foot and this time stumbled on the main tourist drag. Wow... I had wondered why I'd seen so few tourists so far and now I know where they all were. It was chaos, and much of the authenticity and charm of Saigon was stripped back to pure commercialism and competition for the tourist dollar. Sadly this is the way of the world, and I better get used to it because I'll be banging up against it time and time again on my travels. But it did make the rest of my stay in Saigon where I managed to avoid places like that all the more special.


Friday, 29 October 2010

The Future of Saigon

After all the excitement of the last few days, not to mention the frantic packing and preparation before I left Perth, I was ready for a rest day today.
So I just hung around the hotel catching up on some things like processing some photos and sorting out some of the logistics for other parts of my trip.  It was today that I actually created this blog (and then created back-entries for the last few days).
I didn't leave my hotel until after dark and decided to have a wander around the city and explore a bit before eating.
During my wandering I stumbled across a park that was full of young people and families playing games and dancing.  It looked interesting so I went over and grabbed a few photos and video of the games they were playing and some of the dance routines (think "Australia's Got Talent" dancing, not traditional dancing).
I was soon approached by a couple of people who were curious to say hello to the foreigner, and then a young guy came up to me and asked most politely if I would mind coming over and sitting down to have a short discussion with him.  I had nowhere to be, so I said ok.  A few minutes later a small crowd of about 8-10 people had gathered and it had turned into some kind of impromtu Q&A about Australia.
It seems most of the people there were students in their late teens or early twenties, and were not only curious about Australia but very keen to practice their English.  There were about 5 that stayed around and we ended up chatting for about 2 hours before I really had to go eat before all the restaurants closed.
These students were intelligent, articulate, polite, friendly, funny, and very astute.  They were asking me difficult questions about complex issues in Australia, such as the exploring the subtleties of aboriginal issues, and immigration laws and how they relate to international relations.  Although I did most of the talking it seems, I really feel that through observation I learned far more about them than they did about me.
Before meeting these students I had already sensed a real air of optimism in Saigon, but here I was meeting the up-and-coming future of Vietnam, and I have to say their future is looking extremely bright!  You couldn't hope for a better group of ambassadors.
All I could think about afterwards was that back in Australia, a similar group of people of that age would be spending the same Thursday evening skanking around Carousel or getting chased by security guards for graffitiing somewhere, or doing something equally anti-social.  You would *never* think to approach a mob of 20-somethings in Australia that are hanging around a park at night if you were alone.

PS: Yen, if you read this then please send me an email so I can send you the photos of you and your friends.


Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Mekong Delta

I got picked up at 8am this morning by Tan (my motorbike rider from last night).  I jumped on the back of his 100cc Honda Dream and we took off for the Mekong Delta... about 2.5 hours ride away from Saigon.
Apart from getting a very numb bum along the way, it was a great ride.  Lovely to get out of the city, although we were never really out of industrialised areas for the entire 150km or so.  But it was still very interesting.  We stopped for a drink at a little cafe along the way, and it seems pretty standard to offer a heap of hammocks rather than seats to rest in. Great idea for taking a nap in.
We eventually arrived at My Tho where Tan and a river tour operator arranged a private tour of that part of the Mekong Delta.
Over the next 5 hours or so we cruised up and down and visited four islands in the Mekong delta and I learned about some of the local industry and lifestyle.  We rowed down some beautiful canals on two of the islands and had a lovely lunch at a restaurant on one, including the biggest prawns I've ever seen.  I handled a python and was offered a live cobra for lunch (they cut the head off in front of you, then you drink some cobra blood with vodka and they cook the snake for you for lunch).  I went for the massive prawns and an elephant ear fish which was cooked and then made into spring rolls for me.  Delicious!
After the river tour, Tan and I jumped on the bike to head back to Saigon.  Unfortunately with about an hour to go, the heavens opened up into a torrential storm for the rest of the journey.  I think Tan must have thought I was crazy because the rain didn't really bother me much, although it was heavy enough for the raindrops to be painful when they hit you in the face.
By the time we got back to my hotel I was a pro bike passenger, super nochalont, no-hands like the locals and not squealing like a little girl when trucks sped past few inches from my head with horns blaring.


Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Exploring Saigon

Today left me feeling many things, both happy and sad, but mainly it left me feeling a deep respect for the resiliance and perserverance of the Vietnamese people when faced with huge challenges.
My day began with about a 4km walk from my hotel to the War Remnants Museum which documents many of the atocities of the Vietnam War (logically called the American War by the Vietnamese).  Unfortunately the museum closed for lunch just as I arrived, so I had an hour and half to wait before it reopened.
So as I was wondering what to do during that time, I was approached by an old man who was a cyclo driver (3-wheeled bikes following a similar principle to a rickshaw), asking me if I wanted a tour.  So away we went, and it was great.  The old guy (his name was Zhou or Xun I think - I didn't hear it clearly) was as cheerful as he was fit, and the leisurely pace of a cyclo is a perfect way to check out the sights of the city.
After the tour I was dropped off at a restaurant just around the corner from the museum where I had lunch.  The menu included such items as chicken testicles, pigeon, goat fat, pig intestines, fish belly, and sparrow.

After a good feed I finally made it into the War Remnants Museum when it reopened at 2pm.  Parked in the grounds at the front of the museum are a bunch of US military planes, helicopters, tanks and artillery from the war.  It was all very impressive in a "playground for grown-ups" kind of way.  Everyone was having their photo taken in front of a Chinook helicopter or F5 Jet fighter and the mood was light and fun. But stepping inside the museum, the mood changed dramatically.  The accounts, photographs and exhibits in the museum were very confronting and immensely saddening.  The museum almost exclusively details with the atrocities committed by the US, and much of the content unashamedly serves a political purpose, so don't come in here expecting to see a sensitive, objective, balanced assessment of things. But the fact it only shows one side of the coin doesn't seem to matter. War museums the world over show the same kind of bias.
What does matter is that most of the things explained in the museum really did happen, not to mention the many more terrible things that weren't covered by the museum.  No matter which flag you choose to wave, there simply is no justification possible for atrocities like those.
Of particular interest to me was a large exhibition called "Requiem" of news photographs from numerous photojournalists who were killed while reporting on the war at the time.  These include photographs that made the front page of newspapers and magazines around the world, many of them instantly recognisable as iconic and prize-winning photographs.  Seeing them presented together in a context such as this was very powerful.
I couldn't help but think back to Zhou (or Xun?) who had shown me around Saigon earlier in the day.  During our tour he was pointing out certain buildings and indicating their use during the war. He had lived through all of this and was talking from his own experience.

So after spending perhaps 3 hours at the war museum, I needed to go for another walk to clear my head.
Wandering around downtown Saigon is remarkable.  Every time I walk out the door I see the most unlikely things.  Whether it be uber-trendy western shops located beside rickety old eastern dives or men selling live aquarium fish from the back of motorbikes, this city is never dull.   Not only that but there is a sense of optimism in the air that I haven't felt in other S.E. Asian cities, like the city is riding the crest of a wave.  Every time I stop for a drink I meet somebody interesting.  It's hard to fathom how this place could ever be the setting for war.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


I arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) late in the morning of 25th Oct. The airport was fine. A little confusing trying to negotiate an arrival visa with customs staff who cannot speak English, but 10 minutes later everything was sorted (and it was much better idea than sending my passport away before leaving Australia).
So I change some money and grab a taxi voucher and walk out of the (very quiet) airport into the chaos. Walking out of the airport terminal felt like walking down the red carpet at the academy awards. The path I was being led down was blocked off from the general public by ropes, but with thousands of people lined up against the ropes holding signs and waiting to catch a glimpse of their loved ones arriving. I felt like a rock star as I was led straight to a waiting taxi and off I went. It was all quite efficient and simple.  Just the way I like it.

On the taxi ride I got my first real glimpse of the city.  On the surface Saigon appears pretty much as I expected. The traffic swarms everywhere relentlessly, and locals seem to live their entire life on the street with little distinction between private and public life.
It was certainly a sight to behold, but it wasn't a big surprise because it was the Saigon you see and hear about from travel shows and things like "Top Gear Vietnam Special".
But the other, deeper layers of Saigon beneath that initial impression, the complex and subtle things that aren't captured in 30 minute TV grabs, that I'm here for.  As far as personality goes, Saigon has it in spades.
It's noisy, smelly, chaotic, and can be difficult to negotiate. But at the same time it is harmonious, social, friendly, and very cooperative.

Before I talk more about the city, I should address some practicalities.  Saigon apparently has the highest crime rate in Vietnam. Supposedly the biggest dangers for tourists are things such as motorbike bag snatches and petty scams. It seems violent or more serious crime is fairly uncommon though. Keeping bags and cameras safe is a message constantly reinforced by locals I speak to, and it is something I am always aware of.  Having said that, I feel safer walking the streets here at night alone than I would through the centre of Perth at night.
Because I'll be travelling through a number of potentially-dodgy places during my travels, security was a priority for me during my preparation. I carry a backpack which cannot be opened unless it's off my back, and I always carry it on my back with both straps over my shoulders so it can't be snatched. When I carry my camera I always have a wrist strap secured around my wrist and never let it just dangle, and in Saigon I only walk around with my small GF1 camera and leave my DSLR kit back at the hotel. Discretion is the key word. Because of this, and also because I genuinely think Saigon is pretty safe, I now feel quite relaxed and able to explore freely without being worried about what might happen. Of course I always need to keep my wits about me no matter what city I'm in, but I don't feel paranoid.

I'm on my way

?????? ?????The first day of my trip began at sunrise on the 25th October as I landed at Kuala Lumper airport to wait for a couple of hours before flying on to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

What a fitting start to my trip to see the sun rise in that milky, humid S.E. Asian sky.

I had plenty of time to kill at KL airport, so I wandered around with my camera grabbing some photos.

I also had a conversation with a lady called Sophie who was sitting across the aisle from me on my flight from Perth and was then also waiting for my same flight to Saigon.
In a broad Australian accent she told me how she was born in Vietnam in 1973 during the war, but was evacuated out of the country while just a baby.  She was then adopted by an Australian and English couple and brought up in Perth.  She is now 37 years old, and this was her first visit back to Vietnam.  She was going to try to search for her home village and family.
In the chaos of the Vietnam war, many of the records of such evacuations were incomplete or simply wrong, so there was no guarantee she could ever know where she was born or anything about her biological family.
It was an amazing story, and made my own trip seem fairly trivial in comparison.