We have become millionaires. On Wednesday we went to the bank and pulled out four million dong. Unfortunately, this only converts to about $240 dollars so we probably could only buy you a night’s stay in Vietnam and a trip down the Mekong. In all actuality, things are pretty inexpensive here and we’re still working on the 4 million dong five days later. Hot diggity dong! (a phrase Erin frequently uses, not sure how appropriate it is and we’re not certain how it translates to Vietnamese).
We have been in Vietnam for just under a week and have been enjoying the sights and activities. We have just over two weeks here in all and are trying to travel almost the entire length of the country (Ho Chi Minh to Halong Bay)–approximately 1200 miles. Our first three days and nights we spent in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)/Saigon. We stayed in a great place a little off the beaten track of the backpackers area. Actually it was so far off the street that when the taxi dropped us off we were wondering if he had taken us to the wrong place. We were in the right place and after wandering down the alley we came to a very nice, new (only been open for three days), and quiet mini hotel. It was a nice haven from the busyness of the city. With the lunar new year celebration (tet) HCMC was a little out of it’s regular day to day rhythm. Nine out of 10 shops were closed as you walked down the streets which made it hard to find a place for dinner, prices were double their norm, and people weren’t working, just hanging out all day. It was also a cool time to be there because there were fewer people in the city, it was decorated for the holiday, and it gave us something to say to people on the streets: “Happy New Year!”
Here are some highlights from HCMC:
– Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. This extensive network of underground tunnels covers 250 km and was constructed during the American War (as it’s called here) by the Viet Cong (VC) in an area on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam controlled by the VC. We got to crawl through 90 meters of a replica of the tunnel system–it was tiny and we couldn’t imagine how the VC lived their lives underground in such cramped quarters. Lucky for them they weren’t a 6 feet, 3 inches tall bearded, red head.
– The War Remnants Museum. This was a good chance to learn quite a bit about the American/Vietnam War. It was an awful time and the people of Vietnam, not to mention the soldiers on both sides, continue to suffer greatly from the horror of what they lived through. What struck us most deeply was the affects of Agent Orange on civilians. Many children have been born since that time with incredible deformities and disabilities, as a result. The affects can penetrate through many generations and have cultural impacts as well. Although we left the museum feeling sick to our stomachs, it was good to learn more about the war.
– The Reunification Palace. Nothing too amazing, this is the former home and office of past presidents of South Vietnam. We got to see rooms where much of the American/Vietnam War strategy was planned. We also met a really nice couple on our tour who live in HCMC and had good conversation with them. We got to check out their motorbike and John has already started looking on Craigslist to see what we can get one for at home. =)
– Mekong Delta. After much debate on a one or two day trip we went for the one day boat trip which took us about 3 hours (plus a half hour due to the boat having a minor break down in the middle of the river) down into the delta where much of the country’s exported rice comes from. We got to hold a python, sample fresh fruit from the area, see how coconut candy is made, listen to some traditional South Vietnamese music, and take a row boat ride through a canal system. Once again we were reminded why we don’t enjoy tours as much as exploring on our own, but in this case we didn’t have time to arrange a trip ourselves.
The people on your tour always make (or break) your time. There was one character who was quite interesting. When the boat was having trouble he was diagnosing the problem saying, “if we had a sail, we wouldn’t have any trouble,” and John asked him if he was into sailing. Without saying anything the man rolled up his shirt sleeve and pointed to the tattoo on his shoulder as if to say, “What do you think?” The tat was of a pirate with cross bones. Erin wanted to respond, “Ohhhhh… you’re a pirate!” and John wanted to say, “Arrrgh you going to fix the ship?” but we both held our tongues. Over the course of the tour he gave us more information about himself than was necessary and he reminded us of a Cliff Claven gone pirate. We actually did meet some cool folks and that made the tour very enjoyable.
We decided to take a night bus to our next destination, Dalat. The bus left HCMC at midnight and was scheduled to arrive in Dalat seven hours later. We thought that would be just right, getting us into the city in the morning and we could get sorted out from there. At 4:30am the bus pulled into a station, the lights came on, and after asking several people we figured out we had arrived in Dalat, two and a half hours early. Guess traffic was light! It was the middle of the night and we were pretty out of it. The bus company provided a taxi to the hotel we had booked and we were dropped off on a dark street with no traffic and nothing open. Even the hotel had pulled the gate down and did not have a night manager. We rang the bell out front and a few minutes later the owner came out and graciously brought us inside. He explained he did not have a room for us until after 8am but there was a couch. He even brought out a blanket for us. We crashed there for a couple of hours and then were welcomed to eat breakfast with the other guests. The owner was so fantastic and let us check into our room around 8:30am. He actually felt bad he didn’t have a room for us when we arrived–we tried to reassure him it wasn’t a problem and we were just happy not to be sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the hotel!
Dalat is a very nice town and a good change of pace from the city life we have been in for the past month. There are some small mountains around, a lake, green trees, fresh air, and cooler temperatures. We are glad to be here for a couple of days.