Tuesday morning, we woke up and we were ready to start our first full day exploring Saigon. It began with breakfast at the Intercontinental where they had coconuts at the buffet that they cut open for guests to drink the juice out of. I love coconut so I decided to have one. It was a very sweet way to start off the last day of 2013.
After breakfast, we met our tour guide, Phong, and started our drive to the Mekong Delta, just South of Saigon. Since we got on an earlier flight to Ho Chi Min City, Phong did not come to the airport to get us the night before like most guides do. Auntie Missy did talk to him on the phone and thought he was a girl! It was certainly a surprise when a man came to get us in the morning. The two-hour drive to the Mekong Delta was greener and lusher than any area we have been thus far. The Mekong Delta was very rural and tropical. We were finally able to wear shorts since it is much warmer in Ho Chi Minh City than in Hanoi. We then got onto a large gondola type boat and went down the river. There were actually people living on the river in boats and in tiny shacks along the riverbank. It was beautiful and heartbreaking to see all the same time.
We then got off the boat to go see some local shops where the locals produced rice paper, coconut candy (similar to taffy), coconut crackers, rice whiskey and puffed rice. This was like a food tour of the Mekong Delta because I got to try everything! I was obsessed with all the coconut crackers and coconut candy. It was so delicious. For the first time, it really felt like the goods were made completely from local products and that they actually made the goods right there in the shop. It was a very fun and filling day! They served us tea and let us try all of the food as well as test the Queen honeybee lotion they use on their skin.
After my filling tour of the food of the Mekong Delta, we got to explore some local art galleries. The art was beautiful; I wish we could take home some of the large pieces! One part that really touched me were these adorable little girls that were selling postcards as their mothers picked fruit to make raisins. It was so sad seeing such little girls trying to sell the cards. It really reminds me of my time in Guatemala and makes me realize that I should spend my vacation time and do something similar to that again because it is truly such a rewarding experience.
After the shops, we loaded back onto the boat to head to another part of the Delta. On the boat, I was able to taste a ton of different local fruit. My favorite was this pink prickly looking fruit that was very similar to lychee. I was certainly full after this trip and we hadn’t even had lunch yet!
The next part of our tour, we walked through this little town in the Mekong Delta. The area seemed very local with few tourists. We were walking along a riverbank and were able to see the actual houses of many local Vietnamese farmers.
Eventually, we got to an antique Vietnamese house called Mr. Kiet’s that they preserved as a museum. The home still featured old antique furniture that had gorgeous detail. The back of the house had a restaurant where we ate for lunch. We were told we were going to have elephant ear fish. When they told us that, I was excited until they brought the entire fish out to the table! Luckily, the waitress showed us how to get the meat from the fish, prepare the rice paper and roll our own spring rolls. Of course, I was already a pro from my cooking demonstration on the cruise in Ha Long Bay. The meal was so delicious! We then got back in the car to head back to Saigon for our city tour.
Next, we went to the American War Remnants Museum. I was very excited about this part of the trip since I am very interested in the history of the Vietnam War. (Maybe I should listened more attentively in my American War in Vietnam class at USC, because I don’t remember much about it!) The museum made me feel horrible about the atrocities of the war, even though I wasn’t even alive at the time. One standout part of the museum was this photo of a young boy protecting his younger brother from being shot by an American solider. It was horrible that even children lost their lives during the war. They showed horrible images of people after the Americans dropped napalm and phosphorus bombs. The photos showed their skin literally rotting away from the bombs. By far the most horrifying part of the entire museum was the portion on Agent Orange. Agent Orange is still affecting generations being born today with horrible birth defects due to the chemicals in the bombs the United States dropped on Vietnam. One young girl without some of her limbs wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to help the people of Vietnam who are still suffering from the effects of the war. It was heartbreaking to see.
After the museum, we saw the Reunification Palace where the government holds meetings as well as the Notre Dame Cathedral and the post office building that were built by the French when they occupied Vietnam. These are some of the main highlights of the city but was definitely nothing to write home about!
That evening was New Years Eve and Auntie Missy was not feeling well enough to go out. Luckily, my good friend Nathalia has introduced me to her boyfriend’s cousin, Danielle, who lives in Saigon. She invited me to go out with her friends and to dinner. We went to his amazing restaurant for authentic Vietnamese and enjoyed guava juice and soft shell crab. It was delicious! It was so great being able to talk to her about her country and her life. She is currently finishing her masters in fashion design from a school in Taiwan and hopes to spend a year or two in America working in fashion. She helped explain a lot about the reasons why our tour guides said certain things about the country, such as pollution. She said that they probably all lie about the reasons why Vietnamese wear the masks on the bikes so they do not get in trouble with the communist government. Any opposition against the government or any protests is not allowed so tour guides tend to bend the truth to prevent any negative feelings towards the nation. It is so sad how poorly the government treats its citizens here. It seems like they rarely do anything for the good of the people. Even Phong mentioned today that he and many others look at South Korea and wish that South Vietnam had just split from the North to form the same great relationship with the United States that South Korea has, instead of becoming the unified socialist, communist republic of Vietnam.
After dinner, we met some of Danielle’s friends at her house. She lives in the city and her house is pretty modern but had a traditional Vietnamese style. Her parents own an apartment building next door that has 10 rooms for foreigners coming to live in Vietnam for an extended period of time. Since her family lives in both America and Australia, they have many guests from both countries come and stay with her family while they work or study in Saigon. Danielle’s friends were very sweet. They did not speak English fluently like Danielle but they tried their best to communicate with me and make me feel welcome. Then I got to do the one of the most exciting, cultural things I have done thus far, put on a mask and get on the back of a motorbike! It was scary at first but then it was kind of fun and clearly the easiest way to travel around the country.
After a thirty-minute journey on the back of the motorbike, we arrived in New Saigon, an area just outside the city that the government recently created to try and spread people out from the city center. The New Year’s celebration looked similar to one in America, except I was the only white person! Heineken sponsored a big show with the biggest Vietnamese pop star and a few DJ’s. Luckily, I knew all the songs since they listen to a lot of American music. At one point, a DJ was talking in Vietnamese and I asked Danielle what he said and he said, “I am the best DJ in the world.” Then, Danielle turned to me and said, “What world? The Third World?!” I thought that was pretty hilarious but definitely wouldn’t have been funny if I said it! Shortly after the countdown party was over, Danielle’s friend took me back to the hotel on the back of his motorbike. I did not get home until 2:30am because of traffic so I was pretty exhausted. The evening was pretty amazing. I am so lucky to have met Danielle and have an experience like that. I can’t wait to see all the new adventures that 2014 has to bring!
This morning, I was exhausted when our alarms went off but we had to pack up to leave Saigon. Before we left the city, we headed to the Cho Ben Thanh Market to go look at more crap in a new city! We only spent 30 minutes there before heading to Cu Chi.
Originally, the Cu Chi Tunnels were not a part of our itinerary but I was very interested in seeing the network of tunnels that were used during the American War so we were able to fit it into our schedule. It was fascinating to see the tiny holes the soldiers hid in and the intricate maze of rooms and traps they had set up to trick Americans. We were able to get into some of the tunnels but it was so small I got a little scared and opted out of crawling through the tunnels. I can’t imagine how soldiers lived in those tunnels during the war.
After we saw the tunnels, they had a shooting range available to allow people to shoot AK-47s and other weapons. Auntie Missy and I both wanted to cross shooting a gun off our bucket list so we purchased 10 bullets, 5 each, and got to shoot the guns! We had no idea we were going to be shooting guns during our time in Vietnam, that’s for sure. They were so much louder than I expected and also way harder to shoot. I was WAY off target. What an exciting way to end our trip to Vietnam! Please excuse the awkward stance I have while shooting the gun below. Clearly I need to learn some proper form and how to actually look intimidating while shooting a gun. Perhaps putting my Marc by Marc Jacobs bag down beforehand would be a good start.
After another fun 3-hour wait time at the airport in Saigon, we finally landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The airport was gorgeous and the hotel is even more beautiful. Looking forward to explore the final stop on our itinerary. Happy New Year to everyone!