It’s January 19, I am sitting on the couch at home in Orleans, my daughter curled up beside me, my son still living in his apartment for another week and my lovely husband gone to a Mess dinner. We’ve been back in Ottawa for 8 days. In that time, winter has shown us its power with a nice snow storm, some freezing rain, some bitter cold and now more snow is expected. Driving in the winter, on the right side of the road, has not posed a problem as I thought it might after over a year away. The cold hasn’t really bothered me so far but I will live to regret those words.
Jan 9 – we left our hotel in HCMC (Saigon) in the dark bound for the airport 6 km away. We made sure to pre-arrange the taxi fare for no more than 300K Dong. Of course, when we got to the airport, the meter was only at 123K, yet the driver tried to tell us it was 1.23M Dong. I gave him 300K and wouldn’t argue further. The plane left as scheduled, the 3 hour flight to Guangzhou, China was uneventful. We had time for a cup of tea and a cup of coffee at the airport between flights. China – I figured everything must be inexpensive, right? Price for beverages $23US. Lucky we didn’t order a meal! Off to the souvenir shop I went. I had to have one thing from China, never mind that everything we buy at home is from China. I managed to find 3 phone charms – price – $23US. It’s like one of those dollar stores where everything is one price, only multiplied by 23! $46 poorer, we boarded our flight which was only 1 hour late leaving. We were lucky enough to get the exit row, so we could stretch out our legs as much as we wanted. The first meal was an early lunch – rice and chicken or rice and beef. I had the chicken. I slept for 3 hours while the lights were turned low. Lights on for the next meal, rice and chicken or rice and fish. I passed and tried to sleep (why did they wake us up after 3 hours on a 12 hour flight?). 3 hours passed, the entertainment system was working poorly, I couldn’t seem to sleep much. Another meal was offered – can you guess? It was supposed to be breakfast time at this point somewhere in the world as we approached Vancouver. Rice and chicken did not appeal much. Leon broke the good news that the rice had egg on it too. Ok, but no more rice dishes for a while, ok?
We landed in Vancouver, headed straight for the Tim Horton’s counter as soon as we cleared Customs and jumped into our rental car to spend 2 days with Leon’s mother. Family came to visit, I met the new grandson, it was all lovely. After washing all our clothes to make sure no critters had come back to Canada with us while I became re-acquainted with my long lost winter clothes (which fit nicely again thanks to lots of walking and a great recipe for soup), we packed our bulging cases and headed to the airport for the final trip home.
Jan 5-8 – We took the night train to HCMC for the last part of our tour. The train was 2.5 hrs late in arriving, so we didn’t play cards as planned to pass the evening. We had a quick gin tonic and got to sleep in our dingy train car, happy for our silk sleeping bag liners. The next morning, we arrived early, checked into our hotel, showered and off we went to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Saigon was the site of much of the fighting during the American/Vietnamese war. There are many remnants of those terrible battles such as the tunnels at Cu Chi, about 70 km outside Saigon. The villagers refused to give up their town to the enemy, so they dug tunnels from 3 to 8 meters deep and lived much of their lives in them, coming outside to farm and to live as normally as possible. The tunnels are full of traps to keep out the enemy. They harboured Viet Cong soldiers as well, so the American forces tried many times to destroy them. We visited the area above the tunnels and were given a chance to walk inside for about 20 meters from one opening to another. Now they have enlarged some of the entrances for the tourist, but the tunnels were and are still very narrow. To give you an idea, look at the picture of Aiofe walking through. She is a lovely lithe young woman of about 5’6″ and weighing less than 120 lbs, I’d say. Yet she looks barely comfortable fitting through the opening. I tried to go through a bit, but after about 3 meters and only one step down, I had to turn back.
We spent the afternoon on a cyclo ride through the city. This is like a carriage where the rider is pedaling at the back. Leon read that the drivers are often former very educated men who were re-educated by the Communists but have been exiled from the city. However, they are working there as cyclo drivers. They didn’t talk much but did point out certain points of interest as we rode quite fast through the heavy traffic. HCMC has more traffic than Hanoi, lots and lots of scooters and cars. We stopped at the War Remnants Museum for an hour or so. Very touching, very hard to witness, but necessary to our understanding of what went on in this country during the last century.
The next day was spent in the Mekong Delta. It featured a ride on a tucktuck – another cart pulled by a motorcycle. Leon and I got the one for 2 while the others travelled in larger groups. I figured all the locals thought we were the honored old folks, so we had a nicer vehicle just for us. We stopped on the coconut island to taste candy and see how it is made. There was a wine tasting of snake wine, which I didn’t try, but the other ladies swore tasted great. Note that none of the guys tried it. We had a great lunch served to us which included Elephant Ear fish and banana flower fritters. Just delightful. From there, we boarded a small boat, like a canoe, that was paddled by a person standing on the back end. We boarded the larger boat and sailed back on the Mekong River to the port and bused back to the city.
The last 2 days we spent on our own, mostly walking and shopping for our last souvenirs. We got very good at walking through the traffic. Motorcycles will go around you, mostly, but larger vehicles might not. You need to be calm and have nerves of steel – or follow a little old lady across…
Shopping for gifts and clothing was fun but a bit intimidating. As I entered the inside market, merchants grabbed my arm and showed me items promising to have them in my size (Westerners are large compared to the Vietnamese). I was looking for some Prada purses and found what I needed – 2 identical styles in 2 colours, one for me, one for Ariane. In the meantime, Leon was looking to buy some polo shirts. While he left to get some money from the ATM, I guarded the purse stall and was asked by the polo shirt lady to pick the colours for my husband. She said he wanted 4 shirts. When Leon returned, I found out he had only decided to purchase 2 shirts. I guess these people have to make a living…
There was a nice purse store down the street from our hotel. One night, there seemed to be a sidewalk sale there, so I asked to go into the shop to look at the styles. I was told the shop was closed. The next day, I tried to go inside again, only to be told it was closed. I tried again on 2 other occasions, at different times, and still was denied entry. Leon joked that he had paid them off not to let me in. I was starting to feel like they were in a different business or that they didn’t serve white folks. There was another shop with a great blouse hanging in the window. I thought it would be perfect for Ariane. When I entered to enquire about the price, I was told repeatedly “nothing in your size”! Humph!