Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ho Chi Minh City - the adventure begins

22nd-28th February
I flew in at 9.30pm after an uneventful Jetstar flight, and was met at the airport and brought by taxi to the Kim Huong Hotel. I have a small simple room with no windows (a bit disturbing!). After a shower, it was 3am Coffs time before I got to bed...I woke up a few hours later to day one in Ho Chi Minh City and breakfast on the roof...
My first Vietnamese breakfast... but  oh those chillies were hot!

This is Kim Huong Hotel dining room on the roof, but it only opens for breakfast.
Here I am... first morning in Vietnam...  and just over the railing you look down on Ben Thanh Market – the big tourist attraction
This is my hotel

I caught a taxi to HJ Consultancy for my orientation with Heather, who wasn’t there, but Moon looked after me and Daniel Wright (Heather’s son) talked me through the contract and expectations. Teachers are expected to wear business clothes. The men have to wear ties, and long sleeve shirts. No bare arms for us, and no open toed shoes... not quite what I planned for. Hopefully my wardrobe will pass with a push!
I went back to my hotel and thought I would have lunch up on the roof... that’s when I found out it was only available for breakfast... they served me my chicken and rice on a tray to eat in my room (with no windows...). At least there were 80 channels on the TV so I got an update on the Christchurch earthquake disaster and found an episode of the new Homicide to watch.
 I had a bit of a nanna nap, then went across the road to explore the Ben Thanh Market.  Flowers, fruit, meat, fish, spices, food, clothes, shoes, bags, perfume, DVDs... It’s all there and they work hard to sell to anyone who walks past!  “You buy, Madame? I got your size!.. Madame??... Madame!” The market was very crowded, with a bewildering array of stuff... like a rabbit warren of little stalls, all piled high with goods for sale. Lots of fabric stalls.. some even offering suits made in one day. I wandered around fighting off salesgirls assuring me that they had stock in my size and didn't buy anything, although there is a perfume stall that had Opium for about $22. I might go back and see if he'll drop the price... as if it isn't dirt cheap already!  It's different knowing I'll be here for a year.. I haven't taken many photos and am in no rush to buy stuff.
It’s pretty much what you’d expect... teeming with people, accosted by every stall holder you walk past, and rip off prices that you have to bargain down... fascinating. I had no intention of buying anything coz I figured I could get it all in Hai Phong, probably cheaper. The place was crawling with tourists from all over the world... hot sweaty humanity.
That evening, Rosie, one of the girls from HJ Consultancy came at 6.30 to take me to dinner. We went to a little cafe just down the road. Grilled pork patties with various greens you roll up in rice paper (still crisp!) and dip into a dipping sauce (the same as Katie makes) and a chicken dish served on a bed of rice with very hot tamarind sauce and fish sauce, and Rosie also ordered a beef salad that was just a pile of lettuce with thin slices of beef and tomatoes and cucumber. We had kulau to drink (can’t remember the Vietnamese word for it... fresh coconut milk served in the coconut)...cold and delicious.
For Rosie, it was an opportunity to practice her English. She was very pleasant. She lives in a one room house with her mother and father, three older sisters and their husbands, and 4 little nieces and nephews! Mum and Dad do all the housework, cooking and babysitting, and the others all work. All of the girls have graduated from uni and have good jobs. She said it can get very noisy!... that would have to be an understatement !!??


The City Day Tour minibus picked me up at the hotel at 8.45am. There was a mixed bag of tourists and our tour guide was an engaging chap named Po (as in King Foo Panda). First stop was the War Remnants Museum... a harrowing place where they don’t pull any punches depicting the atrocities inflicted on the people during the Vietnam war (on both sides).
Po said: “We do not blame the Americans, we do not blame the Viet Cong. We blame the War itself. Our only concern now is to look after our people who are still suffering the effects of the war.” These resilient people welcome Americans, Australians, all visitors, but make sure we are aware of the ongoing effects of Agent Orange, which is now crippling the next generation of Vietnamese.  
That’s Po in the yellow T-shirt outside the War Remnants Museum. The guy in the red shirt was an engaging Frenchman who worked in Milan Italy. The girl in the grey dress was also French – petulant, bored and miserable... hated every minute of the tour. The man in the blue shirt was a taciturn American (maybe a Vietnam Vet?)
All sorts of planes, tanks etc. were displayed in the front court...
This building is a mock up of cell blocks with torture chambers, with many photos of tortured prisoners

After that we stopped off for a cuppa at a little restaurant in Chinatown and sampled Vietnamese candies and biscuits. Next stop was Giac Lam Pagoda built in the 17th century complete with fabulous porcelain friezes depicting the ancestors watching like a great crowd of witnesses... I am fascinated by those figures... each one so individual, each with his own story to tell...
The third stop in Chinatown was the Big Market.. Cho Lon or Binh Tay Market.  It's a vast rabbit warren of stalls absolutely teeming with stuff and people. It's the wholesale market for all the other markets and street vendors.. my photos don’t show how crowded it was... mostly too crowded to stop for a photo.

Thongs, anyone?

Kitchen Utensils?
                                         How about a hat?            
There are dozens of these hat stalls
Seeing is believing when it comes to the power supply!

I sat with the French couple at lunch. I had a prawn & chicken omelette that you eat with an assortment of herbs wrapped in lettuce leaves... delish!

Then we walked all over the splendid Independence Palace which used to be the presidential palace before the communist government took over South Vietnam.
This is Andreus, a German tourist who is a lawyer whose office is in Moscow. He spoke perfect English and is also fluent in Russian, French and Chinese.

Our next stop was a lacquer ware workshop employing victims of agent orange (2nd generation).

It was fascinating... incredibly labour intensive.

These guys squat and vigorously polish all day!
Fragments of duck egg shells are painstakingly glued in a mosaic using the natural shell colours to create shading.
They inlay pieces of duck egg shell and nacre (shells) as decoration as well as painting with gorgeous results.

The last 2 stops were a bit ho-hum... the Catholic cathedral (pretty drab by cathedral standards) and the Post Office - a 150 odd year old building that's geared up for tourists to post souvenirs home... I didn't.

Just as I walked in the door at the hotel I bumped into Jennifer, an Aussie, who invited me to join her at a performing arts concert... so I had a very quick shower and rushed back out the door! The concert was a lot of fun with acrobats, dancers and kung fu fighters and strident Vietnamese music. They enacted 2 of Vietnam's favourite legends and it was theatrically clever and very entertaining. After that, we dropped by Jennifer's travel agent who tried to chat her up by asking us to go around the corner for a drink! Needless to say, she got quite flustered and decided not to go back to him.

Then we came back to the night markets here and had dinner. Such a raucous place! They shove tables in wherever and move you over to fit in more people... it's a fun way to meet new people! We ended up sitting next to a couple form England who had been travelling for several weeks who were great company.
They ate BBQ'd eel, and we shared deep fried fish, greens and fried rice. Delicious and dirt cheap (about $3.50 each). Boy was I tired by the time I fell into bed at 10pm!

It was supposed to be an early start and I was ready and waiting as told at 7.30am for the Mekong River Tour. When I got to 8, I asked the receptionist if I had it wrong and she looked worried, made a quick phone call and 5 minutes later I was on the back of a motorbike whizzing off to catch up to the tour bus which had forgotten to pick me up... fabulous fun!... Then it was a slow 90 minute coach ride out to the Mekong River,
then onto a little river boat.
this is a floating fish farm. 
We went to Unicorn Island and sampled some tropical fruit including Jackfruit
and walked through the orchard and had honey tea at a bee farm

(well they had a few hives, but lots of souvenirs for sale...)

Then we all piled into canoes and were paddled down a winding canal between jungle and the odd farm house back to the river and our boat.

Further on we stopped for lunch where their specialty was deep fried elephant ear fish... quite gruesome looking, but delicious. Over lunch I chatted to a young backpacker from Finland who was escaping their severe winter. He too, spoke very good English and was very interesting. There was also a young Aussie couple from Logan who were in the middle of a 6 month trek and loving the adventure. So many tourists from all over the world, including a fair smattering of Aussies... including small groups of mature age women...!
At that stop I saw my first Water Buffalo, and fighting roosters in individual cages.

Next we went to a coconut candy "factory" and saw the simple but labour intensive way they made sweet, chewy coconut candy... sampled some and bought some.

Rice wine... snake wine... They had a variety of crocodile skin products for sale, too.

The long trip back to Saigon was crammed into a minibus and not so much fun. Again, I had just showered when Jennifer came knocking on my door looking for company. She had had her eyebrows tattooed... (why would you???) so she was wearing sunglasses and a headband covering her whole forehead (By this morning her eyes were so swollen and black she could barely open them...!). she wanted me to come with her while she sorted out a trip with a new travel agent...

After we got her sorted and booked for Ha Long Bay and Hoi An, we went to the night market for dinner. This time we had garlic crab, crispy noodles with prawns and vegetables, and fried rice with fresh coconut juice ... yum... $7.50. Again a very full day!
On Saturday I didn’t do much since the past few days were so hectic, though I did spent time on the computer in the foyer chatting to Katie. That was challenging, because the default was set to Vietnamese and I couldn’t work out how to change it back to English, so this is what Katie had to decipher:
“Yesterday a ridiculously búsy again, so today I have decided to do á little á possible.. so far I had breakfast on the rf with Jennifer, went to the markets with h so she could but some clothes, then walked up to the optometrists on the corner to order some cheap prescription sunnies ($50)...that took till about 9am... since then I have bên trying to relax in my rôm and get some kind ò journal happening on my laptop (coz someone a on thí computer) while watching an old episode ò Homicide on ABCTV...but it's hideous coz I have no window in my rôm, just 4 walls and I started going stir crazy, wondering what on earth I am doing h?????”

For lunch I had 3 prawn spring rolls with a yummy peanut dipping sauce, and my new favourite drink... fresh juiced pineapple and grapefruit... iced heaven! Then I went over to the markets and bought a bottle of Opium perfume for $15 (it looks real...), and 2 huge mangoes for $1.50 :)  But these mangoes aren’t like Bowen mangoes at home. They eat them green – crunchy like an apple. I chose a wipe one and it was OK, but nothing like as sweet as we’re used to.

On Sunday I went for a wander around the neighbourhood, past shops (what is it with Versace? They’re everywhere!) and street markets and ended up at Ho Chi Minh City Museum, built in 1885.

A statue in the forecourt... love the baby and the pig!
Exhibits included dioramas depicting historical events and handicraft workers, a fair bit of Revolutionary propaganda, paintings old and modern, and best of all a special exhibition of Vietnamese pottery....
That small green celadon bowl in the corner is 1,000 years old! The others in this display are a mere 600-800 years old...
The happy chap on the right with his foot in the air represents the sun. I think the lady on the left represents the moon... dunno about that gargoyle in the middle!
This shop, in a street full of merchants trying to flog “antiques”, was stocked with debris from a ship wreck... mostly ceramic tiles from the 18th century.

The last two landmarks on my walk were the grand Opera House...
...and this statue of “Uncle Ho” in front of the Town Hall – the City People’s Committee. Tomorrow I fly to Hai Phong and the real living in Vietnam begins.

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