HCMC and Mighty Mekong

Divided into four parts, the posts covering our travels in Vietnam started with Hanoi and Hué, then on to Hoi An, and finish with Ho Chi Minh City!

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Danang to Ho Chi Minh City by air is again a short internal flight.  We were met by our lovely guide Han, who took us to first of all to the old Presidential Palace.  Built in 1966 and now only used for formal functions, the Reunification Palace as it is now called was besieged by communist tanks on 30th April 1975, and left exactly as it was then – an architectural and interior design monument of the Sixties with all the mod cons of the time.

Saigon as HCMC was called until 1976, is the name still commonly used for Vietnam’s largest city – a modern, booming area which is the country’s centre for import and export. The EMM Hotel where we stayed reflects modernity with its functional but comfortable rooms and striking colour theme of bright pink and green throughout!

Going back in time, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame is a red brick church completed in 1883 during the French colonial period and located just opposite is the post office of the same era, which looks as if it was modelled on one of the main Paris railway stations.  Interestingly we visited the Cathedral on Christmas Eve and admired the stained glass window depicting the nativity – see ‘Merry Christmas from Vietnam‘.

Our final destination was the War Remnants Museum, which told the story of the Vietnam War from 1952 when the French were defeated, through to the American involvement, until the US finally pulled out in 1975.  This war was a travesty of breaking every rule in the United Nations book.  The story and photographs provided a candid and harrowing reminder of the dreadful loss of life on both sides, and brought home the legacy that Vietnam still has to live with.  In Hoi An we saw people who were totally blind or deformed through the use of Agent Orange as a defoliant in the war.  Those people were the tip of the iceberg.  The dioxin is passed on through generations, and children are still being born with the most dreadful deformities, or mental illness.  Whilst the chemical companies compensated Americans affected, we understand there was no compensation for Vietnamese.

Christmas Day saw us taking a coach across the countryside to Ben Tre, where we joined a river cruise on the Mekong Delta.  The river is 4909 km long, rising in Tibet, China, and flowing through Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam and the Delta is called the rice bowl of Vietnam.  The climate – either hot or very hot – means rice is harvested four times a year, with a 2.5 month growth cycle.  After Thailand, Vietnam is the 2nd biggest rice producer in the world.

Before joining a small river boat, we walked through a brick manufacturing facility, seeing the formation of the bricks from local clay, the drying and finally the firing of them in brick kilns.  For five days the temperature is kept at 400 to 500C, using rice husks as a fuel.  The bricks are then slowly cooled.

The same boat then took us to a craft centre majoring on products created from coconuts, and then through narrow waterways to a village where reed and bamboo products are made.  We took a tuk tuk back to Ben Tre, where we boarded Le Jerai, a lovely comfortable river cruise boat, for lunch.  With good views of the river slowly passing by, we were treated to a cookery demonstration and lesson on how to prepare and present tomato roses, cucumber leaves and carrot flowers – our own efforts weren’t bad but definitely not Michelin standard.  The lunch of Mekong specialities that followed was delicious – we had also ate fresh spring rolls we had made ourselves!  A good choice for a Christmas Day treat.

Spotted on our way back to HCMC …

Our final morning was spent visiting the Chu Chi tunnels, the stronghold of the Vietcong in the war. The network of tunnels, all linked together, was extensive, and we only saw a small section that is open to the public.  The artefacts on display were not at all pleasant, so no photographs, but did indicate the ingenuity of the guerrillas.

On Boxing Day afternoon we said goodbye to Vietnam after a very varied 6 days of culture, history and weather, for a flight that took us on to Cambodia.

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