A Travellerspoint blog

July 2012

Around Saigon – The Mekong Delta


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Having so little time in Vietnam before having to move on to Poland in time for the Euro Cup opening game, and encouraged by how great the tour to Cu Chi was, we decided to book a day trip to the Mekong Delta.

The Mekong Delta is an area of Vietnam that is as much water as it is land. It is a land mass criss-crossed by hundreds of rivers on their way to the South China Sea. The people in this area get around and trade with each other almost exclusively on boats. The trip to this area is a must to experience scenery straight out of Hollywood movies, except here, it’s all a real way of life.

We boarded a fisherman boat and set off on the wavy river:

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When we finally docked on a bit of dry land our tour guide took us to a bee hive demonstration. Not sure whether they think we don’t have bee’s in the west, but regardless, it was fun to see Kristine squirm at the sight of the hundreds of little honey workers.

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The best part however came when someone brought out a giant python and invited the tourists to hold him. Kristine wanted nothing to do with the snake but I convinced her to give it a try. She was fine at first, but soon after the snake started coiling and tightening around her body. You can see the expression of terror on her face:

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The next part of the trip was really the highlight and the reason for coming. We took a tiny little boat through a beautiful canal lined with amazing vegetation. It’s a little disneyesque since clearly the boats are just there to carry tourists around but the scenery and experience is wonderful. In the end they are the same boats and the same type of rivers that people further into the Mekong Delta use for their everyday life.

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Next we took a larger boat down a river to a little riverside lodge where we had lunch. The highlight of the lunch was the traditional Vietnamese musical performance while we ate. The instrument one of the band members was using was a single string guitar like thing which he handled with unbelievable skill. I cannot say the same thing for myself. I absolutely could not get a single sound in tune out of the thing.

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Lastly we took a boat back to our bus and departed the Mekong with many pleasant memories. We really wish we could spend more time in the area and get closer to the local people but with only 3 days in South Vietnam it was impossible. We will definitely have to come back one day!

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Posted by dariusz 07:03 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Saigon City and the Cu Chi Tunnels


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In the minds of the western world the word “Saigon” conjures up images of debilitating heat and humidity intermingled with chaotic street life complete with exotic scents and scenery. The good news (or bad if you’re squeamish) is that it’s all really still there, authentic as ever just made much more accessible to the average traveller. Vietnam in general is a really a wonderful country to visit for a backpacker, extremely well organized, relatively clean and amazing value for just about everything. Saigon itself is often put in the shadow of the capital of Hanoi but we found it to be more interesting and entertaining as well as much cheaper for tours.

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I keep using the word Saigon, but if you look at a current map of Vietnam, you will find no such city. The city is now officially called “Ho Chi Minh” city after the communist leader and national hero whose image you see sprinkled throughout the city in painting, posters and statues.

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However, the locals still stubbornly call the city Saigon and are defiantly pro-American and pro-capitalist. You can see this the second you land in the airport where the official change counter is called “Saigon Money Change”. Then when you drive to your hotel you see multitudes of store fronts with names such as “Saigon Café” or “American Style Clothes/Furniture/etc.”. Lastly when you talk to the locals you learn that the divisions between South and North are still very much alive and people here are in a majority still anti-communist.

The history of Saigon is fascinating as it is here, or rather in the surrounding country side, that the Vietnam War outcome was decided. Most interesting from that perspective is the Cu Chi area outside of Saigon where the VietCong (North Vietnamese Army, “Cong” is the Vietnamese word for communist) had a stronghold and from where they kept pestering and making life difficult for the South Vietnamese and the Americans. We decided to see the amazing Cu Ci Tunnels used by the VietCong for their operations so we booked a WHOLE DAY tour for $10 each INCLUDING LUNCH. How that is possible I really have no idea and to top it off the tour was EXCELLENT.

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The tunnels were an amazing underground system that allowed the VietCong to appear inside American bases, start a fire or attack a garrison, and then disappear as if vanishing into thin air. People used to live, cook and work INSIDE the tunnels, and there was an entire command system and military structure within them. Once the Americans finally figured out what was happening they did everything they could to either destroy the tunnels or draw the VietCong out of them but to no avail. The Americans were physically too big and the tunnels far too complicated, claustrophobic and booby trapped to be able to fight within them while destroying them from the air was an exercise of frustration since the VietCong just kept rebuilding any parts that were hit. Here I am demonstrating why most American soldiers were not able to go down the tunnels. This is one of the original tunnel openings actually used in the war:

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Since most tourists would never be able to go through a real tunnel either because of their size or because of claustrophobia a 4 times larger reconstruction was made. This is me and Kristine within the tourist tunnel. Yikes.

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The reconstruction has 5 exits spaced out approximately evenly from the entrance so tourists can decide how far they want to go. We only made it to the first exit and decided it was enough. The tunnel was hot and humid and at times you felt like you were going to suffocate or get stuck in its walls. The tourists were coming out from the first exit drenched in their sweat. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live, work and fight within the original much smaller tunnels used in the war.

The next stop was a very interesting booby trap demonstration:

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Ouch that must have hurt!

We then got to sit on a victoriously destroyed US tank:

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Shoot an AK47 with real live bullets:

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And lastly watch a wildly informative Communist propaganda video (with Granpa Minh watching us) made shortly after the war explaining how the heroic men and women of Cu Chi fought the “American Devils” and won. The tour guide, who fought in the South Vietnamese army as many Saigon people did, turned the video off after a few minutes saying “OK, I think that’s enough”.

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PS. "Stairway" in our hotel
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Posted by dariusz 07:25 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Squeezing Singapore Into Our Backpacker Budget!

It only took 5 hours by bus from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Singapore is a very interesting and enjoyable country, and with a little effort and help, can be done within budget! It is the size of a small city, its government run by a business-minded dictator, and it’s RIDICULOUSLY clean. One actually has to make an effort to find garbage on the streets because there virtually isn’t any! It’s interesting to see that everyone seems to have a job or some kind of function. No one is idle on the streets. There isn’t any begging. Even the elderly and the mentally challenged have a function in the hawker markets selling handwipes and Kleenex. Most young women carry some kind of high-end designer bag, or their boyfriends or their husbands will carry it for them. Most people are very well dressed, all of the time. Their designer duds are apparent from their Armani eye-glasses to their Gucci shoes. Apparently it’s illegal to buy or wear fake designer clothing!

The temperature is always in the 30 to 40 degree Celsius range and is constantly humid. You can’t even escape the humidity at night! Consistent sweating and frizzy hair are guaranteed!

We stayed in a well-run hostel in the Ann Siang area of Singapore – it’s pretty posh. We stayed at the Matchbox Concept hostel in a 16-pod room, equipped with lights, hanging space, and a cute little “peep hole” if you want to talk to the person next to you! I quite enjoyed the pod-like layout because it gives you privacy from the other people staying in the room. However, I was quickly reminded the reason why we usually avoid multi-bed dorms – the snoring and constant coming-and-going of people make it very difficult to sleep! Still, it was the coolest dorm-room I’ve ever slept in!
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We were fortunate that our friend Jeannette was available to meet up with us and show us some sites. We met her and her fiancée in India and quite enjoyed their company. Thanks to her and her insight as a Westerner working in Singapore, our stay was even better than we could have expected!

Just to give you an insight as to how clean Singapore is, Jeannette mentioned that she can walk to work barefoot in the rain and not have dirty feet afterwards. Also, we watched a bunch of teenagers practicing their break-dancing in a subway station ON THE FLOOR WITHOUT GETTING THEIR DESIGNER CLOTHES DIRTY. Amazing!

Jeannette took us to a couple of fantastic hawker markets where you can buy a huge meal and a large fruit drink for less than $4/person. The Hainan chicken-rice is a MUST. The famed “chilli-crab” is supposedly another must-try, but Derek felt his had too much chilli and less crab.
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Jeannette also took us to the Marina Bay to watch a free and innovative lazer/light show displayed on a background of fountain mist (best watched next to the Louis Vuitton flagship store), showed us a restaurant where people are hoisted onto cables to reach wine bottles from the biggest wine rack I’ve ever seen, hotels with cars that would take me at least 10 years to buy (provided that I forego a home and eating), high-end restaurant rooftops where drinks cost a minimum of $20/glass, and a mall with a drain that fills streams so that boats can take passengers through the mall and peruse by their favourite designer stores. Jeannette topped off our night by taking us to a wine bar that only served wine. After backpacking and being in countries that don’t serve wine, it was refreshing to sit back and sip on a glass of delicious Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and paired with great conversation!
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On another night, Jeannette brought us to an Arabic-centric part of town that was very vibrant and full of expats, locals, and tourists. We ate a very inexpensive restaurant with fantastic food, then went off to an outdoor patio/jazz bar for my first shisha/hookah experience! We had the apple flavour and only later did I learn that you’re NOT supposed to inhale it (duh).
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We had such a memorable time in Singapore thanks to Jeannette! It meant so much to us that she was able to take time out of her busy life to show us around and introduce us to all the wonderful things Singapore has to offer… and on a budget!

Posted by krisses 05:06 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Unwinding in the Perhentians


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The Perhentians islands in Malaysia are what tropical dreams are made of. A pair of idyllic islands just of the cost of the Malaysian peninsula that have some of the nicest white sand beaches and best water visibility in the world. We visited Perhentian Besar, the larger of the two islands, and at first we stayed at Arwana beach resort on the Teluk Dalam side of the island. The Teluk Dalam bay is extremely shallow which makes swimming difficult and the beach is white and beautiful but a bit rough on the feet as you walk into the water. Regardless, we really enjoyed ourselves:

After a few days we decided to move to other side of the island, specifically to the Coral View resort. The sand here was a PERFECT powdery white that felt wonderful under our feet and the water was absolutely crystal clear. As if that was not enough, there was also some amazing snorkeling just steps away from the beach, with no need to take any expensive boat trips. Just step into the water, submerge your head, and gaze at the amazing underwater world. We had truly found our tropical paradise:

Getting to the Perhentians is ridiculously easy with modern airconditioned buses from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Besut (gateway to the islands) on a perfect asphalt road leaving multiple times per day. There are also multiple boats per day in Kuala Besut that will take you the islands from a modern and well organized pier. If you prefer, you can also organize such transport with the resorts ahead of time but we preferred to just show up and bargain.

Posted by dariusz 09:46 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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