In just four weeks I will be heading back to Southeast Asia for the second time since 2008. An old friend from Australia, a new friend from China, and myself will be travelling around peninsular Malaysia. As I plan for this trip, and get more and more excited, I am finding myself reflecting more and more on my first Southeast Asian adventure…… three months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, with my then partner, Chris.
Part 1: Southern Vietnam : Millions of Motorcycles and Floating Markets
This was it. The moment we had been planning and waiting for. I had found a nice spot to make my home base – the place where I would lay my head for the night and get as many hours of rest as I could. I had found the perfect location. I had found two seats in Heathrow’s pre-security departures lounge that did not have an arm rest between them. I pulled out my sleeping bag and did my best to contort myself into an L shape so as it fit onto the seats. The women who appeared to be wearing every item of clothing she owned, who also appeared to hail from somewhere in South Eastern Europe mumbled and occasionally shouted profanities and threats into her cell phone. Hours later when I sat up to stretch and allow the blood to flow back into my legs, I realized she had no cell phone.
Chris joined me in the airport the next day and we checked through security where somehow I managed to lose my wallet within the first hour. Luckily, Chris has possession of all our travellers cheques. An overnight flight took us from London to Kuala Lumpur, and then to Ho Chi Minh City – formally known as Saigon.
We checked into a hostel in Saigon which would be our base for exploring the surrounding region. We also used our time in Saigon to sort out our visas for entry into Cambodia.
Millions of Motorcycles, Fighter’s Tunnels, and a Religion for Victor Hugo
Saigon is a city ruled by the motorbike. Four million of them crowd the city streets, often carrying entire families on their daily errands. Moto-taxis are a quick, easy, and economical way to get around the city. Life as a pedestrian, however, can be challenging. Streetlights are rare, and the best way to cross the street is to boldly step out into the oncoming traffic. Walk at a steady pace while making sure to not speed up, or suddenly stop. The drivers will part around you like a wave, and it is by suddenly changing your speed or trajectory that accidents can occur.
On the streets near our hostel, many small shops catered to all sorts of tourist whims. If its a day trip you are after, then a short walk around the block will provide you with several companies to choose from. We decided to go on a combined day trip to two places which peaked our interest while we were planning this trip back in Edinburgh – the Chu Chi tunnels and the Cao Dai temple.
The Chu Chi tunnels are a massive tunnel network not far outside Saigon, which were used by the Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam war. The tunnels served as supply routes, food and weapon storage facilities, accommodation, and even hospitals during the war. The tunnels now serve as an important tourist destination, and a small section of the tunnels have been widened and made available for visitors to crawl through.
Cao Dai is a monotheistic religion found predominately in southern Vietnam. Cao Dai is a colourful and sort of mishmashed religion which draws upon ethical precepts from Confucianism, occult practices from Taoism, theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, and a hierarchical organization (including a pope) from Roman Catholicism. Its pantheon of saints includes such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen.
The temple is elaborately decorated and vibrantly coloured, with divine eyes looking out the windows, and dragons winding up the pillars. The faithful participate in mass prayer whilst dressed in bright and colourful robes. It is a true feast for the senses.
Floating Markets and Life on the Mekong
After seeing the Saigon sights and sorting out our entry visas to Cambodia, we took a mini bus to the small (1 million residents) town of Can Tho. We had read that this is a nice and relaxed place to base yourself for exploring the Mekong delta. From the bus station we took a moto-taxi to the central area of town and began a search for a guest house. It did not take long to find a nice room with double bed and hot shower for $10 a night. Most families in the tourist business have connections to every other aspect of the tourist business, so by asking your guest house owner a few questions they will most likely be able to sort out all the rest of the details of your trip – and even recommend their cousin/auntie/brother’s guest house in the next town you are heading to.
After mentioning our desire to see the floating markets, the owner of our guest house quickly introduced us to her friend who has a boat. She came prepared with photo album of smiling tourists enjoying their boat ride, so we began the haggling process. We are not star barterers, but we at least managed to get breakfast included in the price. She would return for us bright and early in the morning, 5:30 am to be exact.
Being a part of the floating markets was an incredible one. As we slowly meandered among the river traffic, we could sit back and watch as the local people did their shopping from the water. The smaller boats would pull up along side the larger ones, and the customers would board the boat in order to begin the bartering process. Instead of signs or billboards, the boats advertised what they had available for sale by danging a few examples from a large pole attached to the back of the boat. Fancy a pineapple? Then go find a boat with some pineapples suspended high above it.
After observing the daily errands of the resident of Can Tho, we bought our pineapples, and carried on the rest of our river tour. We sat back and relaxed, lazily watching the Mekong scenery pass us by as we cruised further away from the city. The only thing spoiling this idyllic return to nature were the ubiquitous plastic reminders of civilization. Every twenty minutes or so, the woman driving the boat would need to shut down the motor and untangle the plastic bag which had gotten caught up in it.
Rivers are the arteries and life blood of a country. The culture and national psyches of a people are often shaped by the great rivers flowing through them. This is also the case with the Mekong. The people who live along the river, rely on it for almost every aspect of daily life. It is water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. It is used for laundry and play. It is a road and a market. Without it, southern Vietnam would be a very different place. I am grateful for being able to be a part of the Mekong’s life for this one day.