Sunday, April 11, 2010

South Vietnam and Cambodia


I landed at Ho Chi Minh City airport with a sense of fulfilment, having finally visited the country of my origins (or at least where I was conceived ;) ).
The plan was to do a quick tour of the Ho Chi Minh area and Siem Reap with my friend Daniel, before heading to Korea to visit the in laws and meet up with da wife :)

The first thing I noticed was the traffic - it was crazy! Anyone who's visited areas of SE Asia would know what i mean - motorbikes, taxis, cars, buses, people, all on the road at once, all moving in different directions, all chaos, yet also a strange sense of order - i never saw any accidents the whole time i was there.

In most areas, traffic rules are just ignored - there are just too many people and vehicles on the road to regulate successfully. Traffic lights are only followed when in the heart of the city. Otherwise, to cross the road, it takes courage, courage, and more courage.

The idea is that you cross the road without stopping, and traffic will move it's way around you. If you stop or hesitate, you might cause an accident, since the drivers are reacting to the assumption that the space you are currently occupying will be vacant by the time they get there.

There is also alot of honking - the noise will drive you crazy if you stay outside too long. I believe the honking is more about letting other's know where they are to avoid crashing rather than angry honking.

Anyway, got a taxi to the backpacker area west of the city center - a little run down area filled with hostels, hotels, little eateries, drinking holes and souvenier shops. It looked rough but lively.

I checked into the hotel and went out to meet some other friends Colin & Alexis I knew were in the area that night, as well as waiting for Daniel to arrive.


After meeting with Colin and Alexis, we went in search of some local food - and in Vietnam, the most famous dish is Pho. Pho is a rice noodle soup in a hot hearty broth and raw beef strips that cook in the soup. Having had much Pho back in melbourne, I was keen to see what it would be like in the homeland.

We found a famous pho restaurant on the corner, and settled down on a small table outside with some Tiger beer, waiting for our food to arrive.

The verdict: The broth was good as I know, but the quality of the ingredients were not the best. I guess being in a western country with food quality standards results in better quality food - the meat was tough and sinewy. Still, I was happy, though I don't think anything could beat the quality of Pho in Melbourne :)

The rest of the night was chilling out in the bars in the area and meeting up with Daniel.


The next day, me and Daniel went sightseeing (after a nice breakfast of Bun Mi from a street vendor - crispy bread roll with pate, pork, vegetables and chilli - Vietnam has the best bread in the world in my opinion, probably influenced by the french. )

We first walked past the huge Ben Thanh market, where you could buy practically anything - clothes, jewellery, electronics, food, etc. However, I can't vouch for the quality - Daniel bought an imitation brand watch for his father, which broke shortly afterwards. Still, it was nice to walk around and check out the goods.

We continued walking towards the reunification palace. This was the place where the Viet cong finally took control of Saigon and the South. The tanks that broke through the front gates are still in display there.

We also checked out the War museum. The museum was heavily biased, portraying the americans as violent, brutal, and inhumane. They showed photos of people affected by napalm, agent orange and other ordinances from American soldiers. It was interesting to see it from the other side however.

We kept on walking around, admiring the French colonial style mansions and buildings, contrasting with the run down old buildings and new modern shopping areas.


My mum had told me that when she was a child, she lived in an area close to the centre, in her parents hot bread kitchen. Earlier on, she draw the rough location and address of the house, located near a market and the second biggest church in Ho Chi Minh City. So naturally I went in search of it.

It took a while, and a bit more walking that expected, but finally we found it. Mum's memory was right - there was a huge church nearby painted pink, and a small market around the corner. However, the house/shop was no longer a hot bread kitchen - as it was sold ages ago before they left vietnam, mum's childhood house had been converted to a half jewellery shop, half underwear shop. It was still a nice moment of connecting to my ancesteral roots, standing in front of the house my mum used to play in as a child.

One thing worth noting - We walked past a dumpster that was on fire... I wonder if that is normal?


The next day, we booked a tour to visit some areas around the Ho Chi Minh Area. One of these areas was the extremely colourful and excessively decorated sculptured Thao Monastery - complete with equally colourfully dressed monks in assorted white, red, blue and yellow, depending on their rank. There was even a monk band on the balcony playing serene music to the huge mass happening below. The walls of the monastery could barely be seen amongst the paintings and sculptures of various dragons, floating eyes and strange symbols.


Thao Monastery however, was just a stop over to the main destination of the day - the famed Cu Chi Tunnels. These tunnels were created deep underground and barely big enough to stand in by the communist Viet Cong during the war - one must really not suffer from claustrophobia to crawl though them. These tunnels of several levels deep, would contain everything a soldier and their families would need, a kitchen with cunningly disguised chimney, bedrooms, hospitals, storage areas, intelligence stations - and a whole series of booby traps for the unwary enemy. Many of them would live down there for months without seeing the sky, moving through the tunnels by torch/candlelight, or mostly through touch, since any sign of light or living there would give them away to the enemy.

I was brave enough to crawl only through the first level of tunnel - but not enough to crawl through the smaller 2nd level, or beyond.


One thing I was looking forward to trying was the shooting of a gun, in particular the Ak47 - guerillas choice of assault rifle. For a few dollars, I was allowed to shoot 10 bullets at a distant target in a shooting range on the site. I was however not prepared for the amount of recoil on my shoulder, or the noise as the powerful rifle shot out my badly aimed bullets to everything but the target in front of me. Oh well, practice makes perfect. :)


Feeling like a real man, I thought it was time to dare trying some good old street food that my mum used to make when I was a kid. We found a dingy looking stall with little plastic squat chairs and low tables at a place where I could try something I call Com Tam - which is a broken rice dish served with a marianated bbq pork chop, fried egg and assorted pickled vegetables and fish sauce.

Unfortunetly, the quality of dishes in Vietnam cannot compare to the quality found in Western countries, due to the quality of the ingredients and cooking conditions. But even though it wasn't as good as I had hoped, I still found it satisfying.. but was it worth the risk of potential food poisoning? Probably not.


No matter where I went in Vietnam (on this trip or later on), whenever I tried a western style menu, it always did not work as a dish. This is mainly because Vietnamese people would put their own sweet, spicy flavours into it. As a result, a burger would have a sweet flavoured patty, topped with cucumber in a hard roll and soy sauce, as an example.

Still, it's good punishment for those who refuse to try the local cuisine in a given country - I mean, why eat what you can get normally at home when you're in a new exotic country with so much to offer?


Having traced my mums childhood home, I thought it was important to visit the area where my dad grew up, and where my parents lived together before the war forced them to flee their homes to an uncertain future.

I would have liked to have visited the actual town they lived in (Sadec), unfortunetly we were pressed for time, and there weren't any day tours that would take us there. One day I would like to return to visit it with my parents..

Anyway, the mekong delta is a vast network of rivers, little villages, all connecting the mighty mekong river to the sea. This river is the vibrant lifeblood of the villages - everything happens in it - from fishing, to travelling, to bathing, to selling..

We had a wonderful guide with a passion for singing traditional songs while sailing through the delta. We sailed past fishing boats, all colourfully decorated along their bows in vibrant hues, the feature of this artwork being a painted eye on either side. This eye would create the appearance of a giant fish to the sea animals below. The guide explained that the shape and style of the painted eye determined the region the boat was from - a more rounded style characterised the south, whereas a more pointed style came from the north. In any case, it is quite a sight to see rough tough fishermen and women fishing in such cute colourful looking boats.

We reached a point where our boat was too big to go through the smaller rivers. I was left wondering what we were going to do, when around the bend of the river we saw an army of tiny canoes, rowed by a series of gentle yet wiry old women with traditional conical hats - the sight you usually would imagine when you think of Vietnam. A few of us got on each boat, who then took us through the smaller river until we reached a village.

Now, you would be naive to think you can go on a tour without being taken to some factory of some sort, where you're shown how certain things are made, and then led to the gift shop with elevated tourist prices. In this case, we were taken to a coconut candy factory. I did end up buying some candy though, since elevated prices or not, the people seemed so lovely and what little money I would spend I figured would go a long way with them. I generally resent it and resist when people expect you to buy at inflated prices, and in fact push you to do so. But these people weren't like that, so I was happy to spend away.

We had a simple lunch of typical vietnamese tour food - an unexciting bland combination of rice, fish and stir fried vegetable. (I came to realise that every tour I did in Vietnam in future was the exact same set of dishes! Is this to cater to fussy western palates who may not appreciate the spicy sour salty flavours of the region i've always wondered..) We then had some local tea and exotic local fruits while the guide performed a song with some musicians. This followed with walking though the local souvenier market, where I nearly got left behind due to haggling and buying some nice vietnamese art (which in hindsight I could just buy back at home in the viet community areas of Melbourne) whilst the others boarded the boat back to Ho Chi Minh City. Luckily the guide noticed, otherwise I could have been left stuck on the Mekong for a while..

As we headed back to the city, I had a sobering thought on the fact that this was the exact same river that my parents fled by boat under the cover of night, 30 years ago. I cannot imagine the horror and fear my parents and family must have felt leaving their home, their way of life, everything they knew, and venture out alone towards Ho Chi Minh City, towards a bigger boat much like the one I was on, which would take them out of vietnam into the unknown of the ocean, where fate would either see them rescued or lost forever at sea. Had fate taken the latter, I would never have been born, or been able to reflect on it right now..


We arrived back in Ho Chi Minh to find out that a cousin that I never met or knew about before had tried to contact me at the hotel I stayed at. It looked like my mum had been busy contacting family in Vietnam to meet with me and show me around the town and make sure that I was ok. I felt a little uncomfortable meeting family I never knew, especially with the language barrier. Still I thought I'd give it a try, and I was glad I did.

We arranged to meet my cousin outside the hotel where he would take us to have dinner somewhere. We were surprised and a little worried when we went outside to find two cousins Ken and Samuel, each with a corresponding motorbike. Ken was more fluent in english than Samuel, and explained that me and Dan would get on the back on each motorbike and we would go for a night drive around the city. If you have seen the way traffic works in Vietnam, you would understand why were were a little scared.

It seemed there was little cause for alarm - the ride was an exhilarating experience I would never forget! Riding amongst the organised chaos of the motor bikes, headlights and people was almost fluid like - merging into traffic, avoiding collisions, observing the sights of the city around, from the busy city center, to another area of Ho Chi Minh I never knew existed - called district 7

District 7 is almost the complete opposite to the other districts - it is clean, with wide organised roads where traffic rules are followed, fancy shops and restaurants, and luxurious apartment buildings where apartments would cost up to a million dollars. It is indeed a very affluent upperclass area, where celebrities have bought property or live in. A contradiction to how the rest of the country operates, and perfectly demonstrates the uneven divide of rich and poor.

After dinner, we went to a "coffee shop". What Dan and I didn't realise was that this sort of coffee shop was the type where you get served by beautiful girls who sit down and talk to you, and in return to pay for coffees that are much more expensive than usual. Unfortunetly we found it hard to talk to them, since none of them knew English, so while my cousins had fun talking to them, we can only smile and nod. Despite this, we were able to have some fun and jokingly try to arrange a date with Dan and one of the girls, should Dan ever make it back to the same place again. :)

And so, after being dropped off at the hotel by my cousins, we took a plane the next day to Cambodia..


There is a big difference between the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh Airport that we left, and Siem Reap airport in Cambodia that we arrived in. Siem Reap airport is tiny with hardly any facilities, despite being a popular airport for tourists visiting the Ankor Wat sites Cambodia is famous for.

We took a tuk tuk to the hotel we booked earlier on. A tuk tuk is cambodias version of a taxi, which is similar to a covered open air trailer with seats, attached to a motorbike. They are also available for hire, should you want to have a driver take you around different areas for the day.

We arrived at the hotel, which from the outside looked ok. Unfortunetly, the room itself was not. Everything looked run down; the bathroom was filthy, smelly and the bathtub/shower was covered in rust and grime. To make things worse, the plumbing was blocked, meaning to have a shower meant stepping into tepid water which probably left you more dirty than you started with. At least there was adequate air conditioning to compensate for the sweltering heat, and cable TV..


Siem Reap is a small town but has coped well with the tourists which probably exceed more than the local population itself. The nightlife is quite good, where huge numbers of restaurant/bars line the main street to cater for anyones taste. It's quite pleasant walking down the street feeling the changing ambience and festive feeling, or sitting in one of the many outdoor areas facing the street where you can sip a drink while listening to the DJ play and people watching.

If you happen to be on a really tight budget however, there is a nice outdoor street food area, where you can choose from the vast number of food stalls available. I'm always a sucker for local food stalls as I find it cheap, yummy and a good exposure to the local cuisine - but it's also my curse. If you're not careful with the food you choose and where, you can easily get a stomach bug which only antibiotics can treat - which i did (not the first time for me though).

Massages are also cheap and plentiful, usually performed by agile petite young women, who would as part of the massage, walk on your back and even sit on top of your back to ensure a thorough massage. Please do not think of this as anything of a sexual nature as the media tends to portray - they are quite professional and good natured people there.

If you'd rather go shopping, the huge night market is nice to browse through, where all manner of local arts and crafts, clothing and jewellery are for sale. We also found a Dr. Fish clinic where we had a beer and talked to other tourists.


Dr.Fish is a popular clinic based on the idea that you dip your feet in a large pool of water swarming with tiny fish. These fish feed off the dead skin off your feet, which gives you a tickling massaging feel wherever they are biting. The result is rested clean feet. Hence Dr. Fish. It's always interesting watching whose feet and which part of the foot the fish swarm towards (i.e whose feet is most dirty).

I wish we could get them down here - they're quite relaxing and fun to watch.


We booked a tour guide/tuk tuk driver in our hotel for visiting Ankor Wat the next day.

We had to get up really early before dawn, in order to make it to Ankor Wat in time to see the sun rise behind it. We placed ourselves amongst the other tourists doing the same, in front of the large pools adjacent to the Ankor Wat complex, and waited. And waited. And just as we were thinking whether it was worth getting up so early to see it, dawn broke. A slow, warm aura appeared in the horizon, illuminating Ankor Wat from behind. Slowly, it brightened up as the sun rose, reflecting itself on the pools below, as Ankor wat turned from a black shadow to orange to finally releaving it's stonish grey coloured tesellated fractal domes and pinnacles. It was probably originally not that colour as is with the egyptian temples. It was probably painted and decorated in all sorts of colours, but over time, the colours have washed out to reveal the colour of the materials it was made with.

Ankor Wat is actually one of several Wats (or temples) found throughout the site. It's the most famous, but not the biggest. In fact, all the Wats have something unique about them that makes it worth visiting as many of them as you can.

Whilst Ankor Wat is most known for the huge pointed domes, Ankor Thom is the biggest, and contains a huge number of giant stone buddha heads carved into walls or erected all around the Wat.

My particular favorite is a Wat (can't remember the name) that has featured in the Tomb Raider movies. This particular Wat is a small complex, but is completely overgrown with huge vines and tree roots. Giant trees have somehow grown out from the Wat, trapping it with it's intertwined roots to the point that they have become one.

Another thing I didn't realise about Ankor Wat was the fact that the walls are filled with carvings depicting stories of battles past, and holy scriptures - some retaining faint traces of the original colours. Another thing is that these Wats are still inhabited by some local monks.

I could have spent a few days admiring the sites, but time and the oppressive heat means I will probably have to revisit the site again - should we still be allowed to. Tourism has taken it's toll on the site, causing parts to erode and degrade quicker than it should. In fact several of the sites have areas closed off and covered with scaffolding for this reason. Hopefully we can preserve this treature for future generations to come.