Friday, January 9, 2009

Vietnam and Cambodia and then Vietnam Again Part 1

For our summer holidays we decided to take a trip around Southeast Asia. We signed up with Peregrine tours for a cycling trip from Saigon, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The cycling lasted 12 days, and from there we went to Singapore took the train up to Kuala Lumpur and then back to Singapore for our flight home.

We arrived in Hồ Chí Minh City (Sài Gòn) on December 19th, 2008, a couple of days before the tour started. We were greeted at the airport by someone we presumed worked for Peregrine. "Hey he has our names on a piece of paper, let's go with him!" He spoke English we couldn't understand and giggled a lot, to which we responded by giggling also, but got us to the right hotel and was very nice. The night time drive through the streets was an adventure. As we found out later, Saigon has 8 million people with 3.5 million motorbikes/scooters. While most countries drive on either the left or the right side, Vietnam has developed a Mostly Right side system where, regardless of oncoming traffic, you are allowed to leave your side of the road to pass. Since it was late by the time we got in, we went straight to bed.

The 20th we ventured out to the buffet style breakfast and navigated the noodles and Froot Loops in order to fuel ourselves for the adventure. Jenni tried to console David when the ran out of American-style bacon before he got there, "There's always tomorrow." Our first test was to learn how to cross the streets. The traffic doesn't stop unless there is a red light (and these are a rarity), and really then it's just the majority of the traffic that stops. A delicate balance between pedestrians and scooters has been worked out where if the pedestrian moves at a constant slow rate across the street the scooters and cars will try to avoid them. The key is to keep moving. Our first stop was a food market that was just down the street from the Vien Dong hotel on Ph. Ngu Lao. You could find a whole range of Vietnamese items, from frogs to noodles.

From there we made our way through the streets to the Reunification palace. This was the former "white house" of the South Vietnamese dictator/prime minister and since has turned into a symbol of the unification of North and South Vietnam after 1975. It is used for official business still, but probably mostly a tourist destination. There are two basement levels with at least 4 foot thick concrete walls that served as a bomb shelter. The prime minister lived and worked there throughout the war.

This Excitation Meter must have been broken, because we were way more excited than 0.

After the palace, we went to the Binh Tanh market, which is a big mass of tiny little shops that sold everything from novelty t-shirts, knock off watches, to fish. It was like a maze that would be the envy of any casino designer in the world. Across the street from the market was some weird Heineken Christmas display. In fact, almost every store and hotel had some sort of christmas display. All of them with a snow theme...Seems odd for a country that is 80% Budhist.

Back at the hotel, Jenni went to the hotel "spa" for a simple foot message. Here's her account: After some nasty looks from the male patrons sipping tea in the waiting area, I was ushered down a corridor of candlelit private rooms and into a large, also dimly lit room with several recliner chairs. Some men were sitting and drinking the water and tea already provided, their feet being massaged by young women. While the Lonely Planet had described SE Asia as a conservatively dressed country, these women all had on short shorts and tank tops. I was then given a pair of silk shorts to change into by probably the only male masseuse on duty that evening and ushered to the "female" changing room - a storage closet. The "foot" part of the massage description was misleading and challenged my knowledge of human anatomy. I hadn't realized the foot extends all the way to the upper thigh. When the massage ended the masseur said, "Are you sure all you want is a massage." To which I quickly responded, "Yes..." despite my curiosity as to what else he would offer. Apparently my experience wasn't unique. Another woman on the tour also had a foot massage, which she described as a bit more intimate than she had anticipated. And another man in our group, when he went in for a late night massage, was asked if he wanted one girl or two. He made it clear he just wanted a massage, which apparently was a waste of time because they talked him into a facial instead. As we came to learn, massage parlors are everywhere in SE Asia and mostly frequented by Asian businessmen. It helps to specify that you want a "tourist massage," meaning a massage without "perks" or "happy endings."

For our first dinner in Vietnam, we did what every tourist does and went out for Mexican. The salsa was quite good, although the dishes were a little plain. It was interesting to see the take on Mexican with Vietnamese ingredients.

The 21st was the official start of the tour, but we weren't meeting the group till that evening. So we walked to the War Remnants Museum. This museum is interesting on many different levels, from the many photographs of the war to visiting a museum from the perspective of the (North) Vietnamese. It provided a lot of information, and was really no more biased than any country would be regarding its own wars. Many sections were very graphic, especially the Agent Orange area (which not only showed the impact on the multiple generations of Vietnamese but also U.S. / Australian Service Men/Women after 1975). They also had replicas of the prisons where political prisoners were held by the South Vietnamese government. Most of the blame seem to be directed towards the ex South Vietnamese Government, the Americans, and to a lesser extent the French, leaving one with the impression everything was hunky-dory when North, Central, and South were reunited. Regardless, this was a powerful museum to see and was akin to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.. It was difficult not to draw comparisons between the current Iraq war and the Vietnam War - determined entrenched soldiers, bombing supply lines in neighboring countries, or a lack of a clear justifications...

After the Museum, Jenni decided she wanted to see the U.S. Embassy which wasn't too far away. We stopped in front of the U.S. Seal and Jenni pulled out her camera. Immediately the armed Vietnamese guard blew his whistle and indicated that we weren't allowed to take pictures. Jenni decided she would attempt to look sad and "argue" with the guard, David said "Probably shouldn't argue with an 18 year old carrying a semi-automatic rifle."

We meandered our way through the more upscale neighborhoods closer to the Saigon river where the Continental Hotel (from Greene's "Quiet American") is, and then back to our Hotel for a group dinner with the other 7 members of the trip with our intrepid leader, Linh.

Here's a video of crossing a Saigon street:

1 comment:

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