Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon

Oi Goi Oi!

Again my eyes open early though I can’t capture a sunrise on my lens due to the fact that the hotel is in a very busy area of Ho Chi Minh City.  Not much of a sky to see here.

After our morning ritual of coffee, breakfast and climbing on the bus we are all set for our day-long trip to Chau Doc via Cantho.

A few hours in, most on the bus need either a coffee or a bathroom  break so we stop at the Vietnamese version of a Starbucks.   Much more relaxed atmosphere than the chain, with much better coffee!  They use this aluminum coffee filter and place it on top of a glass, one-third filled with condensed milk.  They pour hot water on the filter of ground coffee beans and when the condensed milk and freshly brewed coffee meet, the result is heaven to the taste buds! Don’t know how these people remain thin!     

There are hammocks all over and when you order your coffee they will bring it to your selected hammock.  We congregate around some low, small tables so we can chat.  Again, Vietnam unexpectedly is providing me a flood of memories of my childhood and my country.   Hammocks are a standard in Paraguay.  Rarely will you see a back yard that doesn’t have one.  The shade from the trees they are usually tied to, providing a perfect setting for a siesta and shelter from the brutal sun, while the hypnotic side-to-side swing helps keep the flies away and you sound asleep.  But no time to sleep now.  I do not waste the chance to go back in time and space and lie on one, nonetheless.  I recall, while I do so, that it takes a bit of balance to climb on!  

After a few more hours (observing daily life alongside my window)  

and a stop at a lotus plantation

we arrive to Cantho   and it’s time for lunch near the river.   

Lunch of vegetable soup,  steamed shrimp with mango sauce,

stuffed pumpkin flower   and crispy pork with mushroom sauce, is divine.  Heavenly coffee, divine lunch… there’s an out of this world theme in this post. 🙂

There is a market on the side and I buy yet another scarf and t-shirt.   Our guide has taught me to say “Oh my god!” in Vietnamese and when I exclaim:  “Oi gioi oi!” when a vendor quotes me the price, I get a look of total surprise and the most charming  of giggles  as she calls the other vendors and has me repeat it.  This was me just before I said it.  They are having a ball.  Didn’t get me much of a discount but it did make for fabulous interaction.

A short distance from there we climb on scooters for another of what my tour company calls UFE’s (Unforgettable Experiences).  Scooters and drivers wait for us to take us to a bird sanctuary at the other end of the town, Banglang.    Didn’t spot many birds.

They leave us and we walk through town.  My “inside quietness” surfaces as I photograph their faces, their houses, their town.   


Back to bus.   Karaoke or Internet anyone?  

Long Xuyen is our next stop where we visit the Cao Dai Temple.  Not a promising start…  

Then a surprisingly pretty building…  

Then puzzlement when I see the monument in front with a reverse swastika embedded. Turns out that the reverse swastika, which happens to have a Buddhist influence, is sacred to many Vietnamese.  The swastika (a Sanskrit word) is also a tantric symbol to evoke ‘shakti’ or the sacred symbol of auspiciousness.

Cao Dai is a religion that aims “to unite all of humanity through a common vision of the Supreme Being, whatever our minor differences, in order to promote peace and understanding throughout the world.  Cao Dai does not seek to create a gray world, where all religions are exactly the same, only to create a more tolerant world, where all can see each other as sisters and brothers form a common divine source reaching out to a common divine destiny realizing peace within and without.”  May get my vote on that premise.   I am mesmerized by its colors and by its principles.  About 2 million people practice it in Vietnam.  Persecuted by the communist rule, it gained in the ’80’s its acceptance.

Back on the bus.  Am really liking crossing the countryside.  We are taking this route so as to be near the Cambodian border.  Tomorrow we are cruising from Chau Doc, Vietnam to Pnom Penh, Cambodia on the Mekong River.

On the way we view a bit more of daily life.  School is out and some girls are in the traditional ào dái dress, used as uniforms in the school. They are heading towards the local ferry which will take them home.  A lot of life takes place on the river; they are so dependent on it.  

We arrive to the Dong Nam Hotel in Chau Doc.  I take a shower and again get on the bus to go to dinner at a local family’s house.  It’s actually a bakery by day and at night she hosts small dinners for tourists.  I try taro and rice soup –purple in color with what to me was a pretty strange taste.   Egg noodle with seafood –great.  Stir-fried morning glory (a plant not the same as the one in the US which is not edible) –delicious!   Catfish cooked in a clay pot –good.

When we arrive it was pouring. First downpour in almost 20 days of travel. It reminded me so much of the storms that hit Asunción and used to scare my mom so much. Ay Vietnam, what are you doing to me?  You have generated so many memories!

The rain brings in a visitor that was not invited to the table.    Mom did not like them; I liked them less.  She got accustomed to them; my aversion got stronger.

Back to the hotel.  The rain is steady and strong and turns into the prequel of dreams of times long gone.

Categories: BLT+ (Burma) Myanmar, Cantho, Chau Doc, Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Long Xuyen, Ramblings, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Fruit Memories, Courtesy of Vietnam

The morning is young though I am definitely not feeling as young as when I went to bed.  Got very little sleep and can feel the fuzziness in my brain.  My step is slow.  And this without drinking a drop last night.  The dancing did me in.  Muscles I didn’t know I had are making it known that they were there all along.   Muscle ache and lack of sleep, however, have no power against adrenaline and after I take a shower I’m all set to go.  Let’s see how long it lasts…

Today we are heading to the Cu Chi tunnels, the base for the Vietcong guerrilla fighters during the Vietnam War.  I am wary of this visit for two reasons: am a bit on the claustrophobic side and don’t know how I’ll handle the tunnels (or if I’ll dare go in) and am not sure I’ll want to hear the propaganda that may go with it.  But I’m in Vietnam and I’m going.

On the way we stop at a rice paper factory and rubber plantation.  I am learning so much about processes of elaboration of things I had never given a second thought to and am acquiring a new appreciation of them.  

I get the opportunity to try my hand at making a rice paper roll.  This rice paper is used to wrap vegetables in a sort of spring roll (which is not fried).  It’s delicate and much harder to make than it looks.

It begins by spreading the mixture of rice and water on a hot plate.  

Then you pick up the roll with a roller. (How à propos.)  Cook didn’t trust me to do it by myself and helped.  

Then it’s transferred to the bamboo to cool.  Hopefully without a hole -mine had one  😦   

Once I’ve humiliated myself enough for being so inept at it, we spot a cashew tree.  In Brazil is where I first was familiarized with one.  The top part of the fruit is the nut that we know as cashew.  My mom used to make juice of the cajú (in guaraní) fruit –or cashew apple-.  Brought back a lot of happy times to my mind.  

A little girl was fascinated by our group.  

The group went on to view a rubber tree.  I preferred to stay on the side of the road with my memories, while snapping pictures.

I find it interesting that when aware of having a picture taken, most in Southeast Asia will flash a victory sign.  

Though the passengers on the same truck did not.  

We arrive at the Cu Chi Tunnels.  

First thing to greet us is an imposing US Air Force helicopter. 

Then we are off to cross a tranquil looking setting  into an area that at wartime was as far off from tranquil as you can think of.

Breathing Hole

Breathing Hole

The tunnels were an elaborate maze (75-mile long).  A veritable city from which the Vietcong operated, coming out only at night for food and supplies.   A place of little breathing room both in space as in oxygen.

And very difficult to detect.

    

They took care of their wounded underground.  

And even had entertainment. The artist in me smiles that even under dreadful conditions that part is taken care of. 

You can go into three tunnels.  One is very claustrophobic even when it has been widened to accommodate tourists.  Tom, the most adventuresome of the group, went in and looked a bit frazzled coming out.  Another is shorter and I did go into that one.  I survived it thanks to Amarjit’s voice on the other side saying: “It’s not long.  You can do it.”  Can’t imagine what it was like to live in them!  I learned a lot about the war.  Even more so after going on the Internet to read both sides.

After this visit we need a bit of downtime which the bus ride back provided, as well as the market visit that followed.

Ah, but the flood of emotions and remembrance is not to be curtailed as I encounter a fruit that my grandpa use to grow and lovingly pick for me when I visited:  a cherimoya.  

Enough of memories?  No, as in the next stall I spot sugar canes.  Don Eladio, my gramps, used to peel the sugar cane for me so I could chew on it, enjoying the sweetness of it for hours.  Grant you, not great for the teeth but the memory of it is!  

Now that we built up an appetite we head to a local restaurant: Phò Hùng.     I would later find out that it is one of the best in the city for Phò, a Vietnamese noodle soup, pronounced “fah”.

The food was absolutely delicious.  You add ingredients that are already on the table to a huge bowl of soup.

I also sampled yet another local beer.

A wonderful meal!  

From here we are free to be on our own.  I, to meet with Jeff (my LA friend who lives in Ho Chi Min City) and maybe experience what locals do.  He picks me up and here comes my first taste of being Vietnamese.   I don a helmet and climb onto the back of his moped towards a café.  

In less than a few minutes we encounter a motorbike accident, a very common occurrence in this city.  Though he is a good driver my immediate reaction was, can I get off now?  

At the café, which is very LA’ish, talking in English with a familiar face, and about common subjects I nearly forget where I am.  

I lived!!

He drops me off at the hotel so that I can reunite with the group.

After my experience surviving as a moped passenger in the chaotic Saigon traffic, I am fully prepared for my cyclo-rickshaw tour of the city!  

For the record is was not as tame as it looked or as I had expected.  We encountered another accident on our route to the water puppet show!  

The water puppet show  did not impress me much, particularly since I had attended another traditional puppet show, albeit not a water one, in Myanmar that was very special.  I think I enjoyed the live music most.   The mechanisms for the puppets are under the water, while the puppeteers are waist deep behind some screens.  In earlier time these performers where prone to all sorts of waterborne diseases but now they use knee-high waders.  

Leaving the show I felt the zipper of my bag opened.  Looking down, my point-and-shoot camera was almost falling out.  Mary, from the tour, was wide-eyed when I looked up.  Yep, someone had tried to steal my camera!

We went off to a French restaurant where strong chili sauce on the table -and a power failure- reminded us we were not in France.

I was going to meet with my friend and his girlfriend afterwards but by the time I reached the hotel, I could not muster the energy even to call.

Tomorrow get ready for Chau Doc and another day chockfull of experiences.

 

Categories: Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Xin Chao

I wake to an almost eerie sunrise, tinting the haze in an orange-red color becoming a grainy photograph in my mind and on my lens.  Laos has been special.  Unexpectedly so, beautifully so, and my heart sinks a little as I put my bag out the door for it to be picked up.  But I am missing my name written on my ID tag in Vietnamese and Cambodian, so the journey continues.  Besides, in Vietnam I have a familiar face of a friend waiting.  It will be nice to catch up and hear about his life as a local.

We will experience flying a new airline for us: Vietnam Airlines.       Just right to get us in the Vietnam mood.  Somehow, Robin William’s voice as he says “Good-morning Vietnaaaaam” doesn’t seem to get out of my head.  Our flight is delayed an hour which allows me some time for coffee which comes in a heart-shaped cup. I add the local paper and some Thai music on my headphones.  I close my eyes for a moment and think of how enriched I am by all the experiences I’ve had so far.   The silly grin surfaces on my face once again.

 As we arrive, it surprises me that the airport is not very congested.  Sufficient immigration officials for all of us so we spread out, almost one to a line.  “Paraguay?” mine asks inquisitively.  “Yes”, I smile.  I am used to this interaction.  Happens in every country.  Sometimes they chat about it, sometimes they have to look it up on their list to actually confirm that such country exists.  Here I get a scowl.  Alone?  No, with tour.  Where?  To Myanmar, Thailand…  NO!  Where tour?  Oh, they cleared immigration already.  I get a shrug from him.  From?  Laos   Another shrug.  Ticket?  Uh, which ticket?  Next to??  Oh, here’s my itinerary.  By bus to Cambodia next.  I’ll make it short for you guys… In total I got (in about 10 minutes) around 7 shrugs, numerous scowls, a request to produce my alien card from the US, and when he ran out of questions and reasons to question my visa he just stared at me scowling and I at him, still smiling.  He still has my passport.  My mind was wondering what next and my heart at this point was racing, racing to nowhere but exerting itself nonetheless.  GO!, he says and I enter Vietnam as I see my guide coming back for me.   Turns out that all the nastiness could have been avoided had I slipped a few bucks.  Or then again, I could have ended up in jail trying to bribe a public official.  I wasn’t going to take any chances.

It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday in Ho Chi Minh.   The city seems to be on speed. The sounds of motorbike engines punctuated by horns, people talking loudly and my gasps, as I see more than one unsafe driving condition and near    miss, are not melding together well at all.       

It’s Bangkok craziness times three.   We are instructed that when we get off the bus, if we cross the street we should not stop in the middle, not walk back, not run.   Supposedly they will skirt us if we just walk calmly. If I raise my hand, as in Bangkok, will they stop?  Giggle.  Nope, but you can raise both arms in signal of defeat says my guide.  Ay, ay, ay!

We go to the Ming Phuong lacquer factory.  They give us a fan upon arrival that I will use throughout the rest of the trip.  The process of lacquering is so time consuming and involves so many steps that I now understand why it is so expensive. So much patience involved.  This woman is breaking the duck eggs to apply on one of the steps.  These men are varnishing, seemingly unaffected by the fumes that emanate from the pool.  And, yes, two of them are smoking away as they work.  The result is astounding on some of the pieces.  

I buy two small items.   Little old me, who never buys anything on vacation, must have had a crash course ‘cause my suitcase is getting mighty heavy!

Next we head towards the Notre-Dame Basilica in the center of the city.  For the record, I don’t think I’m in France, there happens to be one in Saigon that was built in 1877.  It is pretty though not that impressive when compared to the European cathedrals.     

We turn around I see a vendor.  Like the colors.  Snap a photo.  

Remember April 29, 1975?  On April 30 Saigon fell and the reunification of Vietnam into a Communist state began.  This marked the end of the Vietnam War.  On April 29 the CIA personnel was evacuated from the top of the CIA building.  A famous photo by Hilbert Van Es captures the moment for posterity.   We are staring at that building now.  The actual building will be demolished in a week’s time to give way to a new development.        

We have to cross the street to the Central Post Office.  We live to tell the tale. The building is beautiful. Inside as well.

Guess whose portrait overlooks it all?  

On the side are phone booths with world city clocks on top.  

I immediately spot California. 

As we again cross the street to the bus (and survive) I hear that Amarjit has had her camera stolen in less than a few seconds.  We are all heartbroken.  She had all the photos of the trip in the one SD card that was in it.

We go to the hotel.  The group will have dinner there.  I was going to call my friend but no need.  His girlfriend and he are in the lobby waiting for my arrival.  I take a quick shower and go to dinner with them.  I leave my camera or I would share photos.  Tried a soda, lime and sugar concoction that I loved and my first Vietnamese-style soup, which was great.  We eat outdoors.  It’s really crowded and I am reminded that it’s a Saturday night.  The evening is still young and we (actually they) decide that we should go dancing at The Sheraton where there is a live band.  Haven’t danced in years and made up for it tonight!  Haven’t gone to bed this late in a long time either.  The cab tries to charge me much more than what he told them he would.  Hey, I’m good at this by now and give him only what was arranged and open the door to the lobby at 2:00 am.

Feeling young all over again.  Let’s see if I still feel like that tomorrow.

Hello! (Xin Chao) I have my name in Vietnamese now.  Does that make me a local?  

Categories: Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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