As our bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)was approaching the city, this was the view from the window. It could be any modern western city. Once we actually arrived, I quickly learned that this was only part of the story. Saigon is the most modern and westernized of the cities of Vietnam, but that is only a veneer that covers a city of many facets.
Saigon is both modern and traditional, wealthy and poor, city and motorized jungle. The phone system is such a tangled web of wires that it has become a joke and images such as the one below are sold on t-shirts.
While we enjoyed our time in Saigon and Hanoi, I preferred the more laid-back rural areas of the country. Leaving Ho Chi Minh city, we took a tour of the Mekong Delta region and points south. Before leaving this section on Saigon, I should mention that we also discovered that the hotel shown on the banner head for this blog is owned by cousins of Marie’s whose great grandfather founded it in the 1800s.
The larger boats in the floating market are like wholesalers. They display on a large mast above their vessel samples of whatever they have to offer. More than half of Vietnam’s rice and fish come from the Mekong Delta area. Leaving this central district of the Mekong Delta we continued to the city of Ha Tien, near the Cambodian border.
Ha Tien was a three day interlude before heading for the little known secret gem of Vietnam’s islands, Phu Quoc. Phu Quoc is the southwestern most possession of Vietnam. It is rapidly being developed by the Vietnamese government as a tourist destination. The lush tropical island ringed by white sand beaches sits in the gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc or Koh Tral, as the Cambodians call it, has been a disputed territory since the late 1600s. Cambodia still does not officially accept Vietnamese ownership of the island. Both Cambodian and Vietnamese navy boats patrol near Phu Quoc as a reminder of the argument.
To get to PhuQuoc you ride the superdong (no pun intended) for over an hour. Once there there are a number of lodging possibilities from luxury five star resorts to small hotels. Besides the spectacular beaches Phu Quoc boasts a pearl farm, a bee farm, and several pepper farms. A cable car runs from downtown to several of the outlying islands and is a spectacular ride. As a diver and snorkeler I had one of the best snorkeling experiences of my life. The varieties and color of the reefs was something I had only seen in documentaries. If you like fresh seafood, you won’t be disappointed. We rented scooters and toured the island and many of it’s sights that way.
The parking spot at the bee farm was on a small cliff that dropped into a ravine fed by a small stream. As Marie parked her bike and got off, she accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake sending the scooter over the cliff and into the water. Thankfully she was not on it at the time. It took several people with ropes to pull the bike out of the ravine. We called the rental company and told them where to find their bike so they could pick it up. After touring the farm, we continued our island tour on one scooter. Amazingly, the repair bill was less than 100dollars.
I suppose I never thought much about where pepper comes from, so our visit to the pepper farm was fascinating. As I understood the tour, pepper is either green or red on the tree. Black pepper is the green seed roasted. White pepper comes from breaking open the green husk and extracting the seed inside, which is white. Red pepper is just rarer since only a few peppers on a tree will be red among the majority green seeds. I learned something about pepper that day to add to my store of mostly worthless information.
After a relaxing day at the beach we spent most evenings in Phu Quoc at our favorite bar/restaurant/boutique.
Returning to Saigon in order to fly to Laos we found that all flights were booked due to the Christmas holidays. We spent another two days in Ho Chi Minh city before heading out to Laos. In total we passed over two months in Vietnam. I would have to say it was one of my favorite places I have ever visited. It’s a fascinating country and as an American I’m glad I saw it in peacetime and not in a war.