Thursday 4th October
Up early for a 6.30 am pick up. The restaurant is not open this early, so the hotel has organised a boxed breakfast – a tub of warm (now runny, haha) yoghurt, dry bread, half a small donut, a banana and some wafer biscuits. The bread gets ditched at the airport, but we eat everything else.
The car to Da Nang airport takes about 45 minutes, our driver never said a word from the time we took bags to the car, until we got out at the airport. It is busy on the road, they get up early here, rising with the sun rather than by an alarm clock.
It is a shambles at the airport. We check in at a kiosk, and pick two seats around the middle of the plane, just in front of an exit row, and the cabin crew seat beside us. There is no bag drop, so we have to wait in the check in queue. There are two regular counters open, and two at priority. There is a guy running around with a board pulling customers out of the queue if they are on the next flight leaving. We figure he would be better employed processing everyone! We are in the queue a long time, and Tony is getting pissed off with the ones that just walk around and in front of him, so he blocks the way with the baggage trolley, and too bad if they trip over it. He has a crack at the next ones that try it, and they back off. Funny enough we are called over to the priority queue as soon as it becomes available. Hmmm.
Check in goes smoothly, and they ignore the slightly overweight luggage. We get to the gate about 10 minutes before boarding, only to find that the flight is delayed an hour due to the late arrival of the plane. Now why could they not have told us that sooner, surely they must have known when we checked in?
We have time for a coffee and a hot chocolate, and for the first time Tony uses his reusable cup without confusing the bejesus out of the staff! 110,000 dong, $7.50, for a coffee and hot chocolate, it is expensive by local standards. Jane arrives for her flight while we are still waiting, we figure by the time we go she won’t be too far behind us, if she can find her flight that is. We figured it was a code share flight, it was just that a different airline and flight number are listed for the time she is due to depart. We finally get away at 9.45am, and should be on the ground by 11.20am (which we were). Our ride is another A321, and like the last flight there is no entertainment system.
We are collected at the airport, and are puzzled to see “Saigon” everywhere. Our driver tells us that most of the locals hate the name Ho Chi Minh City, it is far too long, and so they continue to refer to it as Saigon. The airport, despite the name change, still carries the IATA code of SGN. “HCMC” is the biggest city in Vietnam, and was previously the capital of South Vietnam. During our stay here we found a lot of anti-American propaganda at historical sites, far more so than anywhere up north. We wonder if that is to do with convincing the locals that they were wrong to fight with the Americans in the war? We also find many guides keen to tell us how much they love “Uncle Ho” and what he did for the country.
There is a lot of traffic here, with over 13 million people I guess you would expect that. And with the greater population, comes more scooters, 9 million of the bloody things. The city is divided up into 24 “districts”, that reminds us of the Hunger Games books.
Saigon Prague hotel is down a narrow alley way, still a street with the occasional car, more than a few scooters, and lots of pedestrians. We are on the 6th floor, on our bed are towel swans (again) and red rose petals (awwww). Jane arrives soon after, and is in the room across from us. We have a couple beers and a snack down in the street at a café, just along road from hotel. We talk to an Aussie guy who is working here, and a long time tourist from the UK. They tell us the markets across the road are underground, they are ok, but better prices are in the markets at Saigon Square.
We see the first sleeper bus, we have heard of these, but not seen them. Sets of bunks, two high, in a bus travelling overnight. We wonder how these are to travel in. We met a few people who used these, with varying experiences. One of the families from the boat used one and found it ok. And an English couple we met in Laos said it was a bit rough, and the beds they had at the back had “welcome to hell” scrawled on the ceiling. We met a woman (solo traveller) in Laos who used one of these, hers was pretty rough, she wouldn’t use the toilet the entire trip, the bunks were two high and double beds, and she was sharing her bed with a stranger! The locals think nothing of it, there is very little privacy with the crowded homes, and crowded streets.
We meet up with a few other “boat people”, and have a bit of a laugh at how they manage to mangle our names. Jane says she has been called by both her surname and middle name. We usually get “Anthony and Corbett” on our greeting boards, sometimes it is Corbett John. Ali is travelling with her son, and gets “Mr” all the time, she thinks it is so funny.
The dark clouds are building and shortly before 5pm the heavens open, it is very heavy, and the gutters are soon overflowing. In places it is too deep to cross the road, if you are wearing good shoes. It is still raining when we are picked up for our cyclo ride to the water puppet show. Our guide asks if we want to swap for a taxi. Cynthea wonders if it is safe. Tony figures that a taxi has not got a show of reaching the theatre in time with all this traffic. We go with the cyclo, with heavy covers over our legs and upper body to keep us dry. We laugh at the ones on scooters, especially the girls on the back trying to keep their shoes dry by hanging their legs over the driver’s shoulders. The only time we come near death is during the wait at the intersection, when we actually stop for a red light. While we wait for the change in lights we nearly choke on the traffic fumes. At least it stops raining on the way there.
We are waiting quite a while for our guide at the theatre, she is still on the way and must have driven or got a taxi, which in this traffic would take ages. We are also surprised we are expected to tip VND50,000 to each cyclo driver – do these guys not get paid? They certainly deserved their tip though, they worked hard getting us there. Our guide has our tickets and the show is due to start, the staff must be used to these delays in this weather, and that foreigners arriving on a cyclo are usually with a tour. We had been asked to wait for our guide, but let us in so the show could start. We had not long been seated when she arrived with some others.
The water puppet show was amazing, we could not understand the language but we could follow what was happening as the tales depict rural village life. We wondered how they operated the wooden puppets, the stage was a pool of water, and afterwards when the puppeteers came up for air, they were soaking wet. Apparently the puppeteers stand behind a screen and control the puppets using long bamboo rods and string mechanisms hidden beneath the water surface. A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides accompanying background music, and we have singers singing the songs which tell the story being acted out by the puppets.
The show lasted about an hour, the only hassle was the bloody kid in front bouncing around all over the place. Tony finally gets sick of it, and tells him to sit down and sit still, but it is the end of the show. We are both amazed that the guy next to Tony and the woman in front of Cynthea both sat on facebook the entire show… why bother coming?
We have a tight schedule to get to the boat for a dinner cruise on the Saigon River in a traditional junk, our guide says that if the boat does not wait that they have a water taxi as back up to get us aboard. The traffic is very heavy, but luckily the boat has waited. As soon as we board the junk leaves the wharf. A lot of people are eating already, but we still have quite a wait for our meals. They checked for allergies and still bring the wrong meals. Cynthea is happy, it is seafood, but it is a dish to share, and they whip it away again to her utter disappointment. We have another long wait for a replacement. It is a nice meal, with a variety of dishes, and Cynthea gets a plate of seafood near the end, they felt sorry for her that she could not have her seafood earlier. The boat did a lap and a bit of the harbour, and we are all done by 9.30pm.
Our guide tells us to “wait here” with another group while she goes to the bus. We are the only ones from our tour waiting, but we did as we are told. The other guide says my “group come with me”, leaving just the two of us standing there waiting, and waiting, waiting… We are wondering what is happening, and decide to stay put because that is where we were told to wait, and the guide knows we are there. She eventually comes looking for us, and said she wondered where we had got to. Umm, you told us to wait here and buggered off. She is most apologetic. At the bus the other guide is also aboard. We are dumb founded, haha. The mini bus drops us off near the hotel, and we have a short distance to walk.
Saturday 5th Oct
A bit of a reunion at breakfast, Sam and Lindy are here from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, along with more families from the boat.
We are going on a tour of the Mekong Delta. We are collected around 8am and walked to the bus stop a couple of blocks away. Some of us are not impressed that he doesn’t really check that everyone is with him. He crosses the road without waiting for the whole group. He tells us his name, but says it is easier to just call him “K”, as in agent K from MiB. There is a lot to see on the bus ride, it is a good couple of hours to the first stop, and the kids are busting for the toilet, a good 20 minutes from the first stop. They are funny, yelling out “Agent K, we need the toilet, now…. Agent K”, but he just tells them that we will be there soon. We arrive at another “demonstration” factory, so we can “see” how lacquer work is done. And once again we are left very sceptical that this is the actual process. Photos of anything is absolutely forbidden. The work is highly priced, and “K” tells us that we could do better buying elsewhere. He says that his tour company has to pay to bring tour groups here, where disabled people are employed. There are some wonderful pieces, but we don’t have the room…
Our next stop is one of the many islands on the delta, at a place that harvests coconut honey. Our guide removes a frame from a beehive, no smoke, no protective gear, just keep them in the sunlight and they will be happy he says. Yeah, right. Those that want to can stick their finger into the frame to get a dab of honey on their finger. Tony waits for a couple to successfully do that without getting stung, and then has a go himself, before too many people piss the bees off. The frame is then handed around the group for us to hold. We both have a crack, and are surprised that the bees are not upset.
We are served green tea with lime and coconut honey, and Cynthea buys a bottle of honey to take to Thailand. She also gets a hat that she can easily fold up. Next we are put onto a traditional canoe to sail down the creek, four people at a time. It is difficult to get into, but we all manage to get in without tipping up. Cynthea needs to sit on the front end, instead of down on the seats, so she is facing backwards and has to be told to duck from time to time. We are all given the conical hats to wear while we sailing down the stream.
The next factory has some strange stuff, cobra and scorpion in bottles of whiskey. Yurk. They have carved cute elephants out of coconuts too. Their main seller is “sugar free” candies made from coconut. Coconuts have the flesh removed and squeezed to milk them, the milk is then added to glucose and flavourings, and boiled until thick. When it is cooled it is cut into squares and wrapped for sale. A few samples are given out, and Cynthea eats the whole wrapper of one by mistake, thinking it is all edible But it is only the rice paper inner wrapper that can be eaten, haha. We buy a few different flavoured packs, coconut, ginger, chocolate, coffee, peanut… yum. The durian flavoured ones stay on the shelf!
While we are shopping one of the others on our bus (we are not sure if he was part of the tour company or a local tourist who knew a few people?), comes out with a snake, a whopping great python. Tony has a hold, it is very heavy, and we are pleased to hear that the snake had a rooster for lunch, so here’s hoping it won’t be hungry! Cynthea doesn’t want a hold, but is happy to get close for a photo.
Then we are taken down to the main river to board a bigger boat, which takes us to another island for lunch. Here they farm jackfruit (like durian, less smelly, but still banned), pomelo, and oranges. Pomelo are large, native green fruit, the size of a soccer ball, a bit like a huge grapefruit. We are asked what drinks we want, but there is no menu. Drinks are 15, 20, 25 thousand, the woman tells us. We figured that they would not try anything dodgy here, with the tour company bringing people here, but they do. The pomelo drinks are 50K not the 15K we though she said. And it was well watered down. We are pleased we only had the one, and others complain that they too were misled. There are about four people at each table, we are served buffet style. First up is a whole elephant ear fish, it is an ugly bloody thing. Tony is given chicken and rice because he is not keen on seafood (some makes him sick, especially if they look like that!).
We are back on the boat to cross back to the mainland, it gets a “bit” wet and our guide has to ask everyone NOT to jump up and run to the dry side, because otherwise the boat will tip. The water here is very brown (the river is flowing upside down?) but we are told it is “clean”, and that the colour is mainly from silt. There is a bit of rubbish floating in the river, mainly clumps of lotus plants. We are told that if the water is black, like some in the city, that then the water is severely polluted and to stay out of it. As if we needed telling that!
By the time we get to the Vinh Trang Pagoda, the home of the three giant Buddas (Standing Budda, Laughing Budda and Lying (down) Budda), the rain has all but stopped. There is still a lot of thunder and lightning around though. We are glad to have an opportunity to visit the “happy place”, a delightful name our guides have used to describe the toilets here in Vietnam… but actually some we are not so happy to have to use. They can be a bit rough by our standards. Normally we are very lucky, and western toilets are available, but from time to time it is only the squat ones available, so the girls get the rough end of the stick as it were. We also carry a supply of toilet paper in our day pack, just in case.
We are amazed that on a couple of motorway overpasses the new lanes are not being used. There is a very good reason for that, they are not finished! The on ramps and off ramps are hanging in mid air, and in the middle the new lane abruptly stops. Gobsmacked. We assume it is because they ran out of money to finish the job, and will pick up again in the future? We always find something to laugh at with the scooters, and today we see a guy with a huge Samoyed dog draped across the bike. We wonder how the hell he manages to steer the bike, and the poor dog must surely suffer in this heat. Although, it must be said that this dog looked to be thoroughly enjoying the ride.
We head up to the roof top restaurant and bar, deserted except for the three staff doing sweet bugger all. The pool is up here, and we are keen for a swim before tea. In our time here, we did not see anyone use the restaurant outside of breakfast time. And that was quite common at many of the places we stayed. Not for the first time, we wondered how they maintained the business with these staffing levels.