It was the sixteenth day of my Big Indochina Adventure and I was leaving Cambodia, and many of my lovely tour friends, and heading to Vietnam with the few of us that were completing the entire 27-day tour. Though we were very sad to be saying goodbye to our group, we knew we’d soon be meeting some new travellers on the other side.
We headed to Siem Reap airport and due to one of our tour friends having American Express benefits, we were able to enter the Plaza Premium Lounge. This felt like an absolute luxury and we took advantage of the free food.
The short flight to Ho Chi Minh City was just over an hour long and we arrived into our new and exciting country in no time.
Vietnam is known as the land of opportunities and is an extremely fascinating country to explore. With a controversial history and an abundance of culture amongst its population of 95 million, I couldn’t wait to find out more about the fourth and final country of our South East Asian adventure.
After a rather intoxicating evening in Cambodia the night before, I was grateful to be shown my room in our new hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, where I had the space to myself before the new group arrived the following day. A lazy evening was exactly what I needed before the Vietnamese fun began!
Waking up feeling much more refreshed, we were introduced to our new tour friends and had a hotel breakfast which consisted of spaghetti bolognaise (as I can only assume they thought this was what westerners liked to eat for breakfast!), before departing Ho Chi Minh City just for the day, to visit the Mekong Delta for an overnight stay.
We drove for three and a half hours to the edge of the delta, where our tour leader, Lee, introduced us to our new local guide, Luanne. Here, we boarded a longboat to Can Tho, a small town in the heart of the Mekong Delta and Luanne provided us with interesting information on Vietnamese culture and the daily lifestyle of the delta’s farmers. The music of the Mekong Delta has been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible form of culture in Vietnam and the food is like no other.
We sampled durian, a fruit which smells so potent that it is actively banned from most hostel rooms in South East Asia; as well as jackfruit, rice paper chips, banana rice wine, snake rice wine (which certainly didn’t look appealing, but which I was curious to try), coconut toffee, rice popcorn, jasmine tea and many other Vietnamese sweet treats. Rice is used a lot in the local delicacies as they grow 30 million tonnes of rice per year on the Mekong Delta. We were shown the techniques used to make many of the foods and then had the option to buy our own. This was a great way for the locals to earn money from eager tourists, such as ourselves!
We then had the opportunity to bond with a huge python, who belonged to one of the locals. He seemed to like me as he began to wind himself all the way around my body, at which point I was quite happy to give him back as I didn’t really fancy being squeezed to death today!
It was then time to stop for lunch, where there was a beautiful Buddhist shrine, belonging to the owners of this peaceful al fresco restaurant. Luanne told us that the Buddhist religion is observed by around 15% of Vietnamese people, with just under half of the population believing in the Vietnamese folk religion. The latter comprises of a set of local worship traditions and mythological stories devoted to the thần, meaning “gods” or “spirits”.
Our traditional lunch consisted of five courses, including the most popular meat in the country, pork, sticky rice, mango and a classic Mekong delicacy, elephant fish.
It was then time to board sampans, which are small banana-shaped boats, to our home for the night, a friendly guesthouse, whose owners welcomed us warmly.
Dinner was included that evening, however this was only if we could catch it first! So it was time to get dirty and attempt to ensnare some mudfish into our nets in this traditional manner. The mudfish were very slippery so this was no easy feat in the thick, muddy and opaque waters. Each time I succeeded in getting a hold of one of the fish, it would wriggle away again before I could put it in the net. Luckily we managed to catch a few between us so we could eat that night!
After much needed showers, we had the dinner we had caught and enjoyed some evening entertainment. We were fortunate enough to hear some of the famous and ancient music of the Mekong, with three musicians performing a love story and a song about the daily life of a a Mekong farmer, using their voices and a đàn bầu, a stringed instrument with just one string.
As well as the mudfish, we also had the chance to try two rather interesting Vietnamese delicacies; rat and snake! When I tried to completely forget what I was eating, the rat tasted a bit like chicken and the snake was quite fishy, but it was still hard to stomach, especially as the snake had its skin on. Nonetheless, I think it is always good to be open-minded and try something that is such a normal meal for the local people.
We played some icebreaker games to get to know our new group. And these, combined with a quiz, a few drinks and some card games, rounded off the evening nicely and we awoke the next day ready to depart the Mekong Delta and head back to Ho Chi Minh City.
We boarded our sampan boats back to the longboat and said goodbye to the lovely locals we had met in the Mekong. As we sailed back to our coach we sipped coconut juice in actual coconuts, and saw a fish farm, where people live on the water and catch the fish in traps.
It was now time for the three and a half hour drive back to Ho Chi Minh, however we stopped en route at the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are a staggering 250-kilometre network of tunnels that were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat. Not only this, but the soldiers built communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon storage and tiny hidden living quarters.
The Viet Cong were communist guerrilla troops who fought against the American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam/American War. They dug for tens of thousands of miles, and the Cu Chi Tunnels held some of the main supplies, as well as booby traps for their enemies. The U.S and South Vietnamese forces trained soldiers, who became known as “tunnel rats”, to navigate the tunnels and detect the booby traps, fighting against the Viet Cong. Our upcoming trip to the War Remnants Museum the following day would give us more information on the tragic war, but the Co Chi Tunnels were fascinating to see. They are surrounded by a war memorial park, of which we were given a tour by our local guide, Luanne. She also showed us the backwards sandals that the soldiers wore, so that their footprints looked as though they were heading the wrong way to their enemy troops.
We had the opportunity to climb inside part of the tunnels, to show us the conditions that the soldiers were living and working in, as well as seeing one of the secret doors that led the Viet Cong to another section of the tunnels.
Arriving back to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, we unwound from the day with a visit to a night market and a rooftop bar.
Tomorrow we would be touring the city before departing on a speedy flight to Nha Trang, a coastal resort city known for its alluring beaches. Watch this space to find out more about the diversity, history and beauty of Vietnam in my next blog post!