Down the Mekong into Saigon

March 6, 2007 - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

We crossed the Cambodia/Vietnam border via boat. Starting in Phenom Penh we cruised down the Mekong River into Vietnam to the city of Chau Doc. We had to surrender our passports at the border, our leader then kept them and gave them to the hotel. We didn’t get them back until the next day. I was less than happy about this, but it seems to be standard procedure here. As soon as we arrived at the hotel we dropped off our bags and our guide hurried us so we wouldn’t miss the sunset. Outside were 12 “motos”, or motorbikes. We all got on the back of one, some of us had helmets, some didn’t and our drivers rushed to the top of the mountain about 8 km away. It seemed like rush hour and we weaved in and out of traffic like it was a Universal Studios ride. My driver passed every one else and we were the first to the top. Terry took some awesome video from the back of the bike of her driving weaving in and out of the other motos and bicycles but the video file was somehow corrupted. The sunset was beautiful, the beer delicious, and the ride back at night even more exciting.

The next day we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). We said good bye to our Cambodian guide Bo and met our Vietnamese guide Kong. Don’t want to make the call yet, but so far Vietnam and Cambodia are “same same, but different”. Motorbikes rule the streets. Sometimes with up to 4 passengers each! Crossing the big city streets is a blast. Even when the road is filled with motorbikes, you step out, making eye contact, and just walk across the street. You could probably do it with your eyes closed. The motorbikes carefully navigate around you. The first few times I felt like frogger about to be squashed. But after I got the hang of it, I felt like a rock in a stream, with the water flowing around me. Check out the video and you will see what I mean.

The vendors in Saigon are aggressive. The Cambodians were aggressive too but also respectful. Here in Saigon, I have had my camera strap and shirt pulled. We have had good and bad experiences, some vendors are nice, others only nice only if you buy from them. One experience with a girl about 9 years old selling postcards went like this:

Girl: Sir, you buy postcard
Me: No thank you (3rd time)
Girl: I don’t need “thank you”, I need money
Me: Sorry
Girl: I don’t need “sorry”, I need money
Me: No
Girl: (slaps my shoulder) You a bad boy, (under her breath) F*ck off

We did some sightseeing including the War Remnants Museum where we read poster after poster about the horrible things inflicted by the enemy (uh, that would be us Americans). It is a bit strange hearing about the Vietnam war being told from the “other side”. We stopped in a small noodle shop and had “Pho” a well known Vietnamese beef and noodle dish. The Shawns told us about a Chinese New Years festival and so we went to check that out at night. About 3 street blocks were roped off and red lanterns hung everywhere. We ate various small dished from the different vendors for dinner. There were two stages and live performances. It was very crowded. On the way home we stopped for a foot massage.

The highlight of our 3-night stay in Saigon, for both of us was the visit to Cu Chi Tunnels just outside of Saigon. The grounds were quite large and the presentation was extremely interesting. We saw many of the simple but deadly traps the VC used during the war. In the background was ammo being spent. I thought it was a recording for effect, but they had a firing range. Terry and I both got to fire an AK47 and an M16! Then it was into the tunnels! The tunnels were originally designed for living and then were adapted for resisting the enemy. There were 3 levels of tunnels that connected to bunkers used for hospitals, schools, weapons and uniform manufacturing, dinning rooms, and kitchens. The tunnels were tight and I had to do a slow duck waddle to avoid crawling on me knees and ruining half my wardrobe. And these tunnels were widened from the original size for Western tourists! We felt like rats in a tunnel. Terry couldn’t get enough. We went through every tunnel, every level and Terry still wanted to go back and do it again!

I still can’t believe I was on a motorbike without a helmet (not by choice) in Chau Doc. I was exhilarated and angry at the same time. The ride to the narrow curvy roads up to the mountain was awesome; I even took video. But I was angry because we were all rushed into the motorbikes and I felt somewhat peer pressured into riding it so unsafely (without a helmet). But the wind in my hair was unbelievably exciting... I am still torn about how to feel about it.

Mark loved the traffic in Saigon. First he said how rude that everyone is honking unlike the Hawaiians. Then he learned to cross the streets (I still can’t get used to it) like Moses dividing the sea. He kept teasing me he doesn’t even have to look at the motorcycles, bicycles, cars and buses coming from all directions. He said the traffic system works great here since the experienced drivers will see us crossing and weave away from us. Leap of Faith!!! He even once insisted on having a serious conversation while in the middle of crossing the street and it just to torture me.


Down the Mekong River...
Grains at the market
Agent Orange
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