Downtown Ho Chi Minh

Visiting Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta

I’ve recently been extolling the virtues of Vietnam to friends looking for an exotic holiday destination to escape the harsh heat of the desert in summer. It seems the south-east asian country is a popular choice for a getaway this summer, with several tour companies and charities offering organised group trips there for 2013.

I can’t believe it was almost two years ago that I was there – friends of mine from Dubai had recently relocated to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and the four-day Eid public holiday gave a friend and I the incentive to finally take them up on their offer to visit. With only two weeks to spare for the entire trip, we had to narrow down our bucket list for Vietnam and focus only on the south, as I was keen to get across to Cambodia too.

Unfortunately, the trip didn’t start well, I had to fly via Doha and there was only a very short connection time, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised when Qatar Airways lost my bag. It had been a long journey and stupidly I had packed everything in the backpack in order to avoid carting hand luggage around. My tired, irritable mood could probably have been placated with efficient customer service but the staff were particularly unhelpful which only added to the frustration. I did eventually get my bag back two days later and I pushed for compensation too, but it was all a fight, and one that I really shouldn’t have had if the supposed ‘world’s five star airline’ had trained its staff better in customer service.

However once the stress was over we soon settled into the task of enjoying the infamous Vietnamese hospitality and the amazing food. My highlights of southern Vietnam include:

1. The Mekong Delta
We booked this two-day tour through one of the many backpacker-style travel agents in the centre of Ho Chi Minh and were not disappointed with the group boat tour and village and plantation visits, although the real highlight came when we split from the group for the night’s stay at a family homestay on the river. Falling asleep in a rustic hut to the sound of the frogs after a lovely home-cooked meal, and waking early to accompany our hosts to their work in the paddy fields at sunrise, are memories that will stay with me forever. After a substantial breakfast we also accompanied the family taking their wares to the floating market (which is nothing like the well-known floating markets of neighbouring Thailand), before being picked up for the scenic drive back.

2. Cu Chi tunnels
Unsure of what to expect from this day trip from Ho Chi Minh, I am pleased to report that it was a fascinating place for some amazing insight into how the Viet Cong operated. The tunnels themselves were incredible, unbelievable to imagine that men lived in these tiny confined spaces for weeks, crawling around the 250km network of narrow tunnels. Some of the wider tunnels have been opened up to tourists – I did try to be brave but my claustrophobia got the better of me in the end and I only actually went through part of one before turning round and walking through the jungle instead. I managed to take out my frustrations at the firing range though, where I got to fire an AK47!

3. Cao Dai temple
This tour was included in the trip to Cu Chi tunnels, as they are located close to each other on the border with Cambodia at Tay Ninh, a couple of hours bus drive from Ho Chi Minh. The temple was not only a stunning place of worship, but you actually got to see a service taking place with hundreds of people, which was a fantastic cultural experience. The Cao Dai faith is an interesting melange of several well-known religions and it was fascinating to see this reflected in the detailed architecture as well as some of the rituals performed during the service.

4. War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh
This is one of those museums which grabs your attention and keeps it until you finally drag yourselves away (or in our case when the guards push you towards the doors for closing time!) When we visited it was called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes and it gave a fascinating, if at times excessively graphic (I’m not sure a preserved deformed fetus is necessary), account of the Vietnam War and its atrocities. Many of the accounts, whether in photographic format or in writing (through letters) reduced us to tears several times, but provided an interesting background to a lot of what we had seen and heard across the country, from the victims, the witnesses and the soldiers themselves.

5. Diving with Rainbow Divers on Con Dao
As we had chosen to visit Vietnam during the rainy season, the infamous dive resort of Nha Trang was not an option, but the travel agent in Ho Chi Minh had recommended Con Dao as a beautiful island alternative, with some interesting dive sites, particularly for muck diving. We also got to taste a variety of interesting seafood at the big night markets here – including sea urchins and some giant stripey sea snails that we had spotted under the waves earlier in the day!

The final part of our trip that the travel agent in Ho Chi Minh had helped us with was getting to Cambodia, so that we could see Angkor Wat, one of the top sights on my bucketlist. We booked the short flight over the border to Siem Reap to save some time and spent a few days checking out the world revered temples in all their glory, but I’ll save that for another post…