Mekong Dellta and Saigon
26.01.2011 - 02.03.2011
In a shade under two weeks we hit Saigon, today known as Ho Chi Minh City after the revolutionary leader of the 1950s and 60s. What can you say about Saigon? Saigon is a city that when you’re travelling through Vietnam you hear a lot about. Some people rave about it, citing some stunning French architecture and a great atmosphere; others warn you about it, citing some of the rampant petty crime in the city; but most tell you it’s worth a visit, for no other reason than it is a great base for exploring the Mekong delta and surrounding area. All would be correct.
Stunning buildings are plentiful in Saigon (unfortunately so is the grey concrete); the bustling main evening drag also attests to many stories of pick pocketing and cons. However, despite the scare stories, I was thoroughly charmed by the metropolis.
Like Hanoi there is a beat to which the city runs, mostly made up by the unending horns and revs of mopeds and scooters. It is energising and brings the city to life. On our first day there we met my friend Tommy who is teaching there and he acted as our guide for the day. Whizzing around on the back of his motorbike in the thick of the traffic was one of the moments in life where you suddenly become very religious in the knowledge that certain death awaits should it all go ‘tits up’.
In cities like this it is the quieter moments that provide the highlights as they stand out the most. Two immediately spring to mind, and unsurprisingly both involve food.
Vietnamese food is legendary, fresh big flavours and at a great price. However, amongst the unbelievable choice, two dishes stand head and shoulders above the rest. ‘Pho’ a kind of noodle soup, and spring rolls!
Firstly let’s deal with the Pho. Credited as the national dish you will find it impossible to go anywhere in Vietnam without having Pho on the menu. Now many travellers tell you Pho is Pho is Pho, but trust me when I say the difference is huge especially when your Pho comes with a side of history too.
In a quiet street in the middle of Saigon is a small family run restaurant, unpretentious and tucked away. Like any other place Pho is king here, except the Pho here has gone down in the annals of history. Close to what used to be a US Army base in the city American troops used to eat here on a regular basis. Now here is where it gets interesting. 3 floors above their heads lay a room frequented regularly by revolutionary Viet Cong hiding and plotting in the city. For years as the restaurant served up food to the USAs finest the very people they
were looking to catch were planning just yards away.
The owner then is the owner now and when you done eating he will take you upstairs and in very broken English and much sign language will show you how it all happened. As a funny aside, the character of the owner is seen through the sums of money he rejects from the city museums every year as he wants his furniture to stay put thank you very much.
The second food related story is somewhat more of a ‘mainstream’ tale. Across the city various cookery schools vie for your attention each promising to open up the dark secrets of Vietnamese food to you for a princely sum. Slightly out of the way down a dusty alley or two lays the Vietnamese Cookery School.
With the restaurant’s chefs guiding you at every turn, somehow you can go from serial food butcher, to Michelin starred genius in one short afternoon. More than that you eat what you cook, add in a couple of beers and two rather hilarious Germans and you have yourself a right good time. Needless to say it was a pure winner.
If Saigon represents Vietnam at its most manic then the delta offers the antithesis. Slow, relaxed and utterly quiet, you could almost believe life stops in a place like this. A visit here shows the Vietnam of decades ago, rural, agricultural and in the most stunning setting imaginable.
Despite the first appearances the Delta represents some of the most vibrant culture of Vietnam and is certainly one if its most important economic areas. Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of rice and the majority of this comes from this region providing Vietnam with its economic backbone. It is also one of the world’s richest areas for biodiversity, although in recent years huge arguments have been raging surrounding the water management of the river, which has its source in China and extends down the entire SE Asian peninsula. Any changes to the delicate flow patterns in the river threaten to destroy the entire ecosystem of the river putting numerous species of flora and fauna at risk.
Despite the grandiose politics that threaten to encroach on the way of life in this area, a strong culture remains very much alive.
Much of the region’s food trade is done at one of the many floating markets in the area. Shortly before sunrise boats start to head out into a wide stretch of the river near Can Tho in the heart of the Delta. Some boats are already there, the permanent residents of the river, whilst many hundreds more are quick to join them at the first signs of light. By the time the sun has reached the horizon the river is teeming with life. Boats of all shapes and sizes begin to take part in one of the great markets of the world.
Every boat has a wooden pole rising high above the chaos below. Tied to the pole is one example of every piece of produce the boat holds, as sort of prehistoric advertisement if you will. Some boats are specialist, potatoes and carrots, or tomatoes and mango; some boats are supermarkets, with more variety in their wares than the fruit and veg section of any British supermarket you care to mention; and finally you have the service boats, snacks, drinks and entertainment for the rest of the market. With such a vibrant atmosphere and colour combined with strong culture you are compelled to look in every direction and just soak up the spectacle evolving in front of you.
By 9am the sun is rising and the temperature is soaring and the chaos of the wide channel begins to disperse and devolve back to the peaceful nature of the narrow shaded channels. As we left the market to its transformation we passed on of the most unique sights of our entire travels. Bobbing up and down in the wake of the boats that passed petrol station floated in the water awaiting the boats that frequent its facilities. It is a testament of the ingenuity of the people of the area, but also offers a refreshing example of how the strength of tradition has incorporated modernity into its daily routine, rather than the other way around.
Once in the quiet channels that crisscross this vast wilderness time stands still, and the gentle lapping of the oars of the boat become the only evidence that life is passing by in this area at all. For all the chaos and noise of Saigon, it is impossible to imagine a more relaxing and yet more vibrant neighbour.