Crossing the border was a big hassle. We were crossing at some remote border outpost which is not even described in the guidebooks. The problem was that we were using a different passport to enter Vietnam than we had used in Cambodia. The Cambodians assured us that they had no problem letting us out but that the Vietnamese would not let us into their country. All we had to do is pay a bit more money for an extra visa and all would be OK. We insisted and were eventually allowed to leave. On the Vietnamese side we had problems as well, but mostly due to the agents not knowing what to do. They photocopied our passports and made many phone calls, but also relented and admitted us into Vietnam.
We felt a change as soon as we crossed over the border. It is difficult to explain, but it was very clear that we had left Cambodia. The people were more open, lively, and happy. In Cambodia, it seemed they were more solemn and kept to themselves a lot more. There was also a lot more industry and economically Vietnam immediately looked more advanced than Cambodia, even a few miles from the border.
After a long ride on the back of a motorcycle, we arrived in a town where we caught a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. Saigon is a big city. We were driving through what seem like its suburbs for most of the way from the Cambodian border. It is also very loud and lively. Thousands of motorcycles crowd the streets and crossing to the other side is an art form. People are milling around everywhere and everyone is doing something.
We stayed a few days in the city, and also took some trips to see the surrounding area. In Saigon we walked around a lot and saw the palace which the old South Vietnamese presidents called his home but has stood frozen in time for many decades. We visited the propaganda filled War Remnants Museum for a presentation of the Vietnam-American war from the winning side, which one does not get to see often in the western world. Finally, and somewhat reluctantly, we went to the water puppet theater. Our past experiences with Asian puppets, and live arts in general, has left us cautious. However, we went in and were very pleasantly surprised by the show. The puppets magically moved around over a pool of water and provided for a good hour of entertainment.
We spent one day visiting the strangely colorful mecca of Cao Daism, a fairly recently created religion I have never heard of before. We also went to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong built 240 km of underground passages to facilitate their attacks on the American intruders. It is amazing how tight the tunnels are, even though the ones we walked through were especially enlarged for tourists. Finally, we bought a magazine and took turns firing an M16 rifle at a target.
In order to see the vast Mekong delta, we took a three day bus and boat tour of the area. It was interesting to see how life rolls in the breadbasket of Vietnam. We spent days riding around in a bus as we were shuffled from one point of interest to another. It was somewhat tiring, but interesting. Some of the things we saw:
- fruit orchard where we were able to see how the many exotic and delicious fruit grow.
- one of the many fish farms on the Mekong where basa fish are raised for export to the US and Europe (where it is called panga).
- a crocodile farm. Thousands of ferocious crocs are raised here. They basked in the sun as they await the day they will be turned into a purse, a belt, or a pair of boots
- we stayed in some bungalows in a “homestay” where we had a delicious communal home cooked dinner. The main dish was elephant ear fish. There were vegetables, tofu, and noodles spread out in small bowls on the table. The proper way to eat was to take a piece of rice paper, stuff it with veggies, noodles and some fish, and roll it up. It was delicious. After dinner, we sat into the wee hours of the night with our host Hung, his brother, and a friend drinking rice wine.
- we took a small boat ride through the natural channels off the Mekong river. We boarded our small boat as the last group and had mixed feelings about our rower. She was an old lady with skin like rice paper and a hunched back. Our worries soon blew away as she skillfully propelled our boat with powerful strokes of the oar. She passed most of the boats which started ahead of us. In her younger days, she should have been on the olympic rowing team.
- we made some stops at various local factories. We saw how they make chewy coconut caramel candy as well as the vermicelli rice noodles.
At the end of the three day Mekong delta trip we were near the Cambodian border. Monika needed to run to Phnom Penh to get a new visa for Vietnam, as the one issued in Poland was garbage. Weronika and I went back to Saigon. Along the way, we had a chance to try fried rat. Unsurprisingly, it tasted like chicken.