Paul Kan’s Asia Journal #12: June 8-13, Saigon & the Mekong Delta – Vietnam

June 8-13
Saigon & the Mekong Delta

Walking across the border from Cambodia into Vietnam.

In this story:
To the Vietnamese Border

Vinh Long (Mekong Delta)
Back in Saigon


To the Vietnamese Border

With the unbearable heat and blowing sand, balanced by visions of the ancient temples and relaxing at the Grand Angkor, it was with half relief and half regret that we left Siem Reap. Flying back to Phnom Penh, if you hadn’t already been made conscious by so many signs of war, you were reminded once again of Cambodia’s open wounds – realizing that the sprinkling of so many occasional small lakes and ponds were really water-filled bomb craters. As we climbed into the blue sky, the cratered landscape extended as far as you could see.

The next day we drove to the border with Vietnam. As usual, the Vietnamese border guards were their usual unfriendly selves. Of course we had to completely empty our bags. Thankfully there were few people crossing at the time, so it didn’t take too long.

Our Cambodian guide had told us that our Vietnamese guide would meet us on the other side. But after clearing the small customs building, we didn’t see anyone waiting for us. We waited for a little while, before I decided to make a few calls to the Peregrine Vietnamese office. It was a good thing I had taken the trouble before leaving New York to get a GSM mobile phone and have it connected to my US account. It wasn’t like there were pay phones at the border!

Weeks ago our Thai/Cambodian/Vietnam itinerary had been pushed up a day, but it seemed no one had told the Vietnamese office. So when I called they were understandably distraught, probably more than we were, even though it was probably not even their fault. Of course I don’t know why it wasn’t standard practice for the guides to just call each other while we were crossing, but maybe they didn’t all have cell phones. Anyway, after a bit of haggling, we finally arranged with a waiting van to take us to a halfway point between the border and Saigon, where our tour guide and driver could meet us. Just in time too, for the downpour started after we were underway!

On the way back to Saigon, we stopped at the CuChi tunnels, an extensive network of underground bunkers, living quarters, and storage facilities for the Vietcong during the war. The part of the tunnels that were open to the public had been widened three times, and they were still too narrow and claustrophobic for some. The last time we had gone through, two of the members of our group had mini panic attacks from the combination of heat, darkness, and extreme claustrophobia. Crawling on your hands and knees in the earthiness of the lowest and narrowest tunnels made you think, so this is what it might be like to be buried alive. So this time I stayed above ground and had some lunch, Vietnamese beef noodles (pho bo), in the cool breeze of an oncoming shower.

The contrast crossing over the border could not have been more dramatic. In Cambodia, it seemed, one was surrounded by a sand-dusted and sun-charred landscape, with a handful of motorbikes and heavy trucks on few paved roads, sprinkled with potholes and covered by accumulated dirt and windblown sand. Crossing into Vietnam, the vegetation seemed to almost immediately turn to lush green. you were surrounded by cultivated fields. High power lines traced thin lines in the distance, implying an order of magnitude of development and consumption over war-ravaged Cambodia. Approaching Saigon, the traffic volume said it all in a virtual flood of motorbikes, trucks, and cars.

A relaxing afternoon on the water in Vinh Long.


Vinh Long (Mekong Delta)

The next day we drove a few hours south towards the Mekong Delta. Arriving in Vinh Long, we were crossing the road to board our boat, when I saw our Peregrine guide from my first Vietnam trip, Kha Nguyen, crossing as well. What a welcome reunion!

Can I say enough about him? He absolutely made our last Vietnam trip. Charismatic, gregarious, immensely knowledgeable, energetic, and incredibly conscientious, we saw more on our last trip with him than in so many of my other destinations combined. His uniquely Kha phraseology was still in my mind – he was always “so excited” to “warmly welcome” us into our hot (though air-conditioned) bus. He could talk endlessly about Vietnamese history, “concubines”, “chumba kings”, and ginseng the “natural Viagra”, while always reminding us that we would “also be expected to check all your belongings”. He was still ringing in my ears now, two months later – “ladies and gentlemen, on your right-hand side… National Highway Number 1!”

I am not sure what made Vietnam so dynamic a locale for me – the country and its people themselves, the Peregrine active tour program, or Kha’s able portrait of his homeland that he enabled us to experience. But being in Vinh Long, the rush of Vietnam was again in such contrast to the relative starkness of so many of my other destinations.

Over the next day and a half we saw a half-dozen local factories (making everything from popcorn to dofu to knives and tiles), a rice refinery, basket weavers, need I go on? The Vietnamese people always seemed to be working so hard, and they were so friendly to us Westerners, even after everything we had done to them in their country.

The only drawback to the Mekong Delta was the mosquitoes. At night we stayed at an old plantation house that had been converted into a guest house. Even after thoroughly spraying our mosquito nets with insecticide and repellent, they would be literally covered with insects moments later. The next morning we were all scratching our bites!

Looking over the winding Saigon River you can see the thriving port
in the distance.


Back in Saigon

Returning to a place you’ve been before is often such a comforting feeling. Knowing where you are, it’s so much easier to enjoy your surroundings than any first time through. And so that was what it felt like for me arriving back in Saigon. After being through the rest of Vietnam and now Cambodia, this certainly didn’t seem like the scary place I had imagined on first arriving two months before.

Now returning to the city, the avenue Dong Khoi (what had been the Rue Catinat), the old opera house, and then our hotel, felt so much like coming home. After a cheap massage by the hotel staff to soothe road fatigue, a little internet to check my email and catch up on the news, and a relaxing dinner in a wonderful Italian restaurant across the street, it was so great to get a good night’s sleep away from the mosquitoes!

The first time I had been in Saigon, I had walked around and been taken for a cyclo ride that almost ended badly with some local toughs. This time, I rented a motorcycle, and being mobile, felt much more safe and independent. Although last time I wouldn’t have dared to take on the traffic, after several weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia, and realizing the right-of-way rules, negotiating was not too difficult. Just go in the direction you wanted in a determined, steady, and predictable manner, and the opposing traffic would yield around you.

I spent most of the time just touring and getting lost on the streets. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 10th, Chinatown in the 5th. I ventured through the markets. Then, from the tide of the traffic, accidentally crossed over into the more dangerous 4th district. Our guide had said, be sure not to venture over there. So of course that was where I was now!

I knew where I was, and it was still daylight out, so I wasn’t panicking. I figured I’d just cross back over at the next bridge. But there wasn’t a next bridge. I went all the way down to the end of the island almost, getting in a few dead-ends, and one slightly scary neighborhood, before I turned around and made it back over the bridge as the sun was going down. It didn’t really seem too bad. but it only takes a few bad apples to make a bad situation. I didn’t want to try my luck.

In Cambodia, I was almost not allowed into the country because I didn’t have a full visa page left for them to place their large stamp. So when I got back to Saigon, I paid a visit to the American consulate. Still partly under construction, the front portion of the building was low and permanent-looking, even though it had more of a generic American concrete look than the grand old-world European style that was everywhere about Saigon.

Across the street under the shade of a few trees and some outdoor corner food stands was a bevy of motorcycle drivers waiting for customers, as well as a host of other locals who had a mixed look of longing and contempt and seemed to be waiting for something. Inside, security was tight, but the professionalism of the local staff in US uniforms was crisp and in strong contrast to the laid-back feel of the country. Also inside, there was a brand new air-conditioned waiting room. In all it was so much nicer and more orderly than the passport offices we had back home in Manhattan or Connecticut! I didn’t have to wait too long before I had my passport back with a new insert.

Back on the avenue Dong Khoi near my hotel, it was good to see Hang and Nhung again. They were two of many postcard girls, probably only about 7 or 8 years old. They were omnipresent on the center streets where the tourists were. Hang could speak pretty good English, which she said she had picked up from trying to sell to the tourists. There were holes in her vocabulary, but it was amazing to think that she could pick up so much from occasional conversations. Every now and then when they saw a policeman they had to run or hide their postcards, so they wouldn’t be confiscated. But they could not be stopped. The only times they were not around was when they went to school in the mornings. Afternoons and evenings, they were such a welcome and friendly sight. They even knew how to use the internet, and I’d see them chatting online in Vietnamese with their friends. I think Hang wants to be a doctor when she grows up. I have no doubt that she will be! When I left for the airport they followed me on motorbike through the Saigon traffic to say goodbye – and surprised me by arriving before I did in my taxi!

Although I think I enjoyed the ordered centrality of Hanoi better than the sprawl of Saigon, it was still sad to leave a place so comfortable, so affordable, so friendly, and so beautiful. Over the next few months, Vietnam and China would remain my most favorite locales.

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