Mekong Delta, Day 10

On Monday we spent a pretty fun day on the Mekong Delta River. The first thing that strikes you about this river is the sheer size, some 2.5km at the widest point. We saw a traditional floating market where farmers come on their boats from 150-200km away to sell their crops. The goods for sale are hung from a bamboo pole to make it easy for people to see.

We visited a factory producing rice products, rice paper, rice crackers and puffed rice and tapioca which they turn into cereal or sweet bars. Toffees were being made from coconut milk and pressed banana treats. Best of all we got to try them all, even the snake wine, more spirit that wine!

From here we transferred to a small row boat which took us through a little canal. For lunch we got to try Elephant ear fish and listen to some local music. After lunch we visited a brick and pottery factory and finally we walked through a local wet market where they were selling snake and all manner of products.  A rather grand day out!

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Cao Dai Temple, Day 9

After the tunnels we visited the large and extravagant Cao Dai temple. As it was the day before the new moon festival the temple was very busy with many followers coming from all over Vietnam to worship here.  The religion is a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, native Vietnamese spiritualisation, Christianity and Islam.  It all sounds very random but it clearly works for them! It was started in Vietnam in 1926 and there is only an estimated 2 to 3 million followers worldwide.

We were permitted to take some pictures from the balcony but I did feel like I was intruding so we quickly retreated and left the worshippers in peace.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Day 9

No visit to Saigon is complete without a trip to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. Some 250km of tunnels were constructed in the Cu Chi province alone over a 25 year period.  In the later years of the war they helped facilitate communication and coordination between the Viet Cong (VC) controlled enclaves, isolated from each other by South Vietnamese and American land and air operations. Some of the tunnels contained whole living spaces, and were 3 layers deep. The deepest layer was used for escape and most lead to the Saigon River.
They made the tunnels and entrances intentionally narrow to prevent the larger Americans fitting inside. We got a demo from one of the staff who dropped into a completely hidden trapdoor. They even created hidden entrances under water from the river.
Below the trap door top lies directly in front, look closely for the string handles.
Air ventilation was created using bamboo and disguised as mounds of earth. Traps were created at ground level to catch out unsuspecting soldiers and also within the tunnel for anyone who managed to infiltrate it.

The conditions in the tunnels were poor, often people spent weeks or even months underground. The Americans tried to gas them out, destroyed crops and bulldozed villages. They even sent down special soldiers called tunnels rats. German Shepard’s were used to sniff them out but the VC just started using American soap and spread American clothing round the area to confuse the dogs.  They used rubber sandals which they made with the tread in reverse so that the Americans thought they were going in the opposite direction.

An incredibly interesting visit to a site that really showed the tenacity of the VC and what they were prepared to suffer for their cause. This area was badly bombed and now only a small section of tunnel is open to the public which gets progressively smaller as it nears the 100m end.

Saigon, Day 8

Saigon was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, a year after the city was taken by the Northern Vietnamese but the locals still use the original name. From the airport we were whisked off to see the Post Office, a very attractive building that at first appearances looked rather like a train station. Beautiful old maps are painted on the walls inside and clocks displace time from all round the world. At the back of the building is a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, there are signs of him everywhere all around Vietnam. 

Opposite this is the Notre Dame Cathedral, not nearly as exciting as the name suggests!
The Reunification Palace was our next stop, formerly the Presidential Palace. Originally a palace for a French governor it eventually because the presidential palace of the South Vietnam president Diem once the French had departed. He was so unpopular that his own air forced tried to kill him by bombing the palace in 1962. He ordered a new palace be built on the same site but in Vietnamese style and this time it should include a bomb shelter. 
He was assassinated by his own military before it was finished. Instead it became home to his successor. It was bombed again in 1975 when the communists tanks rumbled into Saigon, although the building was saved and two red circles mark the area on the helipad where the bombs hit.

The bomb shelter in the basement still seems eerily like they just walked out, except for the fact that the equipment is from the 1970’s. 
A series of photographs show everything from the original French palace to concentration camps, with a small child staring out from behind barbed wire. A rather harrowing picture of a monk is displayed during his famous immolation in protest against Diem’s attitude towards Buddhism. This monk came from the same monastery that we saw in Hue at the Thien Mu Pagoda. I suspect this imagine will now be etched in my mind forever. By the time you reach the other end of the room the photographs show the building used in recent years for celebrations and events, including a Mrs World visit in 2005.
Below were taken inside our hotel and from the pool area on roof looking down on the busy traffic.

Hoi An, Day 7

Hoi An was once a major port and many Japanese and Chinese traders have left their mark here. We started our day with a look round the local market. A wet market selling vegetables, fruits and meat is combined with cooking stalls for the locals, very similar to those we have seen in Singapore.  We then entered the old town of Hanoi which is traffic free in the morning and again in the evening, definitely an excellent idea on these narrow streets.
More than 800 old buildings have been preserver here and it really is a beautiful area. It’s a shame so many have been converted into shops touting for your trade. However, there is some really good work going on here, silk worms are breed for silk production which is then turned into beautiful scarfs and clothes and you can even have items custom made. 

Silk lanterns, jewelry, intricate tapestry and many other items are still produced by hand and there were some real gems in among the usual tourist tat. In the evening the silk lanterns line the streets of this lovely historic town.
The Chinese who settled here identified themselves by their province of origin and each community built its own assembly hall for meetings, gatherings and celebrations. We visited the Phuc Kien assembly hall where visitors had left incense coils with their wish for good fortune. These coils take one full month to burn. Later we also visited a Cantonese assembly hall with the most impressive dragon statue in the garden at the back.

Many of the old houses are open for viewing despite the fact they are still lived in. We were taken to see Quan Thang house, built in the late 17th century with a tiny little 97 year old lady still living here, the 5th generation of the Chinese merchant who built the house. Marks on the ancient posts show where the building had flooded over the years.

Finally we went to see the Japanese Bridge, small and sturdy this bridge was built to last, the original builders were concerned about the threat of earthquakes.  Built in 1590 it linked the Japanese community to the Chinese quarters over the stream. 

Hue to Hoi An, Day 6

From Hue we had a 140km drive to Hoi An.  This took us past the picturesque fishing village of Lang Co. A beautiful still Lagoon is home to an abundance of shellfish and we saw mussels growing on old scooter tyres, no doubt there is an abundance of these! We also saw ladies selling the shellfish at the roads side, under an umbrella in basins with oxygen being fed into the basins with plastic tubes.

Onwards and upwards we climbed up to the Hai Van (sea cloud) pass at 496m. From here we could see down towards Danang and back to the fishing village we just passed and beyond.  The lady Buddha of the Danang sea front, a protector, could be made out from here, she stands at 17 storeys tall.
Looking down on Danang

Hue, Day 6

Today we visited 3 tombs, those of the 2nd, 4thand 12th Kings of the Nguyen dynasty who all lived in the citadel during their reign. The first tomb we saw, that of the 4th King, Tu Duc, was one of the few finished before his death and he used the large man made gardens, grounds and buildings as a holiday home. He had 104 wives and countless concubines, but no children.  He adopted his Nephews who then succeeded him to the throne. The grounds of the tomb are impressive, complete with a lake and small island where he hunted small game.  All 3 tombs were consistent as you approach the actual burial ground. There are statues of an elephant, horse and then the mandarins lined up in front of a small pavilion containing a stone tablet, this one the largest of the 3 we saw at 20-tonnes. Our guide told us it took them 4 years to transport this huge piece of marble to the tomb site. Then two obelisks stand before the tomb itself. 

Tu Duc is not actually buried under the tomb, the real site is secret, as with all the kings he was buried with treasure. In order to protect the treasure all the men who dug the grave and knew its exact location were killed.
The tomb of the 12th King, Khai Dinh was very different. Set high on a hill accessed through beautiful red gates. The concrete construction is almost gothic and inside the tomb the walls and ceiling are completely covered in mosaic.  Many of the mosaics have personal significance, the time of his death fixed on a mosaic clock and a pair of glasses somewhere else on the wall. Some of the beautiful flower mosaics are actually made from the traditional soup spoons with the handles broken off. A gilt statue of Khai Dinh sits in the centre of the tomb with his body buried 18m below.

Look closely to see the lotus flower head made from soup spoons.

The final tomb we visited was built for Minh Mang and although planned during his reign it was actually built by his successor. Set within a beautiful and calm park surrounded by a forest. The tomb is reached via a bridge over a lake. His body is buried in a hill at the back of the enclosure accessible by two large gates which are only opened once a year on the anniversary of his death.