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Exploring Vietnam’s south

Publication Date : 22-05-2012


Just a two hour plane ride from Jakarta, southern Vietnam makes for an ideal weeklong travel destination for anyone living in Indonesia.

Last month, my partner and I did just that, hopping on a cheap flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City feels quite alive and prosperous these days. The city hums with the buzz of an impenetrable line of motorcycles that flood the streets. Flashes of neon light up alleyways and street stalls with bubbling pots of soup. Glitzy shopping malls rise from neat sidewalks interspersed with green parks.

The first thing that strikes any long-term resident of Indonesia upon touching down in Ho Chi Minh City is the motorcycle helmets. With few exceptions, Vietnamese motorists wear small open face helmets that fit snugly on the head like skull caps. In Vietnam, these helmets seem more fashion accessory than safety equipment. Many are even made in the shape of baseball caps complete with a visor to shield the eyes from the tropical sun.

Arriving at night, we headed for District 1, the city centre which is awash with clean and affordable guesthouses. From there we walked east to the Saigon River and boarded one of several large ferry boats for a candlelit dinner and river cruise. A seven course meal aboard one of the ferries starts at just US$20.

The following morning, we hopped on a shuttle bus and toured the Cu Chi Tunnels just north of Ho Chi Minh City.

During the Vietnam War, the Cu Chi Tunnels were used by the Viet Cong to fight American soldiers. Today, the tunnels are one of many remnants of the Vietnam War open for exploration. After viewing replicas of booby traps used by the Viet Cong during the war, including pits complete with trap doors and spikes, our guide led us into the tunnels. We descended a short set of stairs and then crawled on our hands and knees through the darkness.

Progressing through the 60 metres of claustrophobia-inducing tunnels designated for tourists was a challenge. The temperature boiled underground and sweat dripped from my face as we crawled on the rough dirt. We only made it 2 meters before a lanky German man in front of us stopped, breathing deeply and shaking his head.

"I can’t go on,” he said. “Please, can you crawl back?” he asked. “I must get out of here!”

After turning around, we continued onwards, grateful at last to ascend out of the tunnels back into the light of day.

From Ho Chi Minh we traveled west into the Mekong Delta. The many tourist agencies scattered around District 1 make travelling further afield quite easy.

A woman in an agency by our hotel arranged for us to travel via motorcycle taxi to a nearby shuttle bus that transported us to a bus terminal on the city’s outskirts where we boarded yet another bus to the city of Can Tho. The tourist agency made this complicated series of travel maneuvers feel effortless. The six hour journey from the agency’s doorstep to Can Tho cost only $8.

Can Tho is a steamy town in the middle of the Mekong Delta, an intricate series of slow river channels and rice paddies. The Mekong is one of the world’s longest rivers, flowing over 4,000 kilometres from its source in Tibet.

In Can Tho we hired a boat from a local woman who took us on a seven hour river cruise. For the Vietnamese who live in the Delta region, the Mekong is life. A boat trip provides the best way to view this reality.

Our tour of the delta started at 5 a.m.. As darkness faded, the orange sun rose above the tree line, illuminating a world where humans live in harmony with the water.

We passed houses built on wooden stilts where locals washed clothes and dishes with river water. In small towns, men and woman in wooden boats loaded with fruits and vegetables laid anchor alongside scores of other crafts to form floating markets where goods were hawked and exchanged between bobbing vessels. In the smaller tributaries, we waved to old men in wooden canoes tossing fishing nets into the water.

After cruising along the Mekong, we pushed west to the port city of Rach Gia located on the Gulf of Thailand.

From there, a high-speed ferry whisked us away from the dark waters of the Mekong to the palm-lined shores of Phu Quoc, a beautiful island 45 kilometres west of mainland Vietnam.

Almost all of Phu Quoc consists of protected forest. Rough dirt roads connect the island’s lovely beach side resorts. Catching some rays on the island’s white sand beaches and gorging on seafood at the night market north of Long Beach, on the island’s west coast, was the perfect end to a lovely holiday.

A long day of traveling on ferries and buses brought us from Phu Quoc to Ho Chi Minh. As we flew back to our life and jobs in Indonesia, I was sure of one thing: We would be back in Vietnam soon.


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