Sunday, 11 September 2011

A colonial city, floating markets and the horrors of war

Saying a sad farewell to Cambodia, we hopped on a bus across the border to neighbouring Vietnam, where we planned to spend the next fortnight. After spending much of the bus journey avoiding cockroach families, we arrived at a rainy Ho Chi Minh city, and after a couple of days wandering around the sights, drifted south to the Mekong Delta. Although HCMC is often touted as a cosmopolitan centre, full of French architecture and a culture of street side cafes, I have to admit that I didn’t really take to it. Yes, the some of the buildings were lovely and I’m sure with more time the atmosphere would have been fully revealed, but it was heavily polluted, noisy with honking and the continuous rush of millions of scooters dashing around on the roads and up the pavements.

The Mekong Delta, on the other hand, was pretty much exactly what it said in all the books. Although we experienced frequent rain showers, our boat was covered and nothing seemed particularly affected. We were doing a two-day homestay, cruising along the delta in a small boat and staying overnight in basic rooms on the river bank. As part of the trip we saw some of the local industries, from brick making to coconut sweet creations, watching the production and sampling the results (well, obviously there was no brick sampling occurring…)

Our homestay was relaxed and quiet, and seeing the floating market the following morning a real pleasure. The only really cheesy bit was an ‘entertainment’ experience at a colonial style house, where upon docking we were greeted by the owners singing and performing for us. Not really my sort of thing, but again, it was a short part of the overall trip. After a pleasant night, we were woken rather early by the enthusiastic cockerels, and after breakfast took a morning cruise through the floating market and back onto dry land.

Returning to Ho Chi Minh, we stopped off at the Cu Chi tunnels, the extensive underground network used as both shelter and a strategic system for burrowing into enemy areas during the Vietnam war. The booby trap devices on show were particularly horrible, and the tunnels claustrophobic, although the most bizarre part of the visit was hearing continuous gunfire from the shooting range next door, where visitors could offload bullets and even try their hand at a rocket launcher with enough dollars. For a place cloaked in memories of a pretty recent war, it seemed a strange tourist attraction. Other than that though, the tunnels were very interesting and informative, and gave perspective on the scale of the network. After leaving, it was back to the city centre to catch our first overnight train heading north.

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