Friday, 23 March 2012


I have been grumpy all week. Doing mean things like making primary school children sit in silence for 2 minutes when they talk too much. They have born the brunt of my post holiday blues. This is what happens when you come back from a holiday that was just too good.

I knew embarrassingly little about Vietnam and it's history. I knew there was a war with America, but largely, I'm afraid, courtesy of 'Good Morning Vietnam' and (worse) 'Miss Siagon' (if you don't know what the latter is you don't want to know. We're delving back into my deep, dark early teenaged years where I liked musicals. I don't admit to it now.)

Vietnam has a long history of being occupied. First by the Chinese, then in the mid 1800's by the French who left a legacy of good bread and beautiful architecture, though nothing to rival Mumbai. Then after the second world war had ended, America worried about Communist power started to help fund the Non Communist southern Vietnamese dictator (Diem - proper nasty) against the Communist north led by Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho.

Stealthy financial aid grew into full scale occupation and war and though America never actually declared war on North Vietnam they were there for 25 years. The Vietnamese are, understandably, still quite pissed off.

We started our visit in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as it's now officially known, though the larger area is still colloquially referred to as Saigon. Many of the tourist destinations are firmly linked to it's recent brutal past.

We saw a lot of American tourists, many of them clearly veterans. Wandering around the Reunification Palace in their new uniform: neatly ironed polo shirts and shorts, white ankle socks firmly pulled up, often a baseball cap. Eavesdropping, we heard them talk about the radio units in the basement. 'Those aren't the real thing', one of them said, 'they're copies'.

They were there again at the War Remnant's Museum. This has a famous collection of photographs by the photojournalists of all different nationalities who were killed in action. They are incredibly moving. The atrocities on both sides were unspeakable. Young American soldiers, often barely out of their teens, with guns. Vietnamese of all ages, right from very young boys and girls, prepared to do anything to liberate themselves.

They built a series of tunnels in a farming area strategically close to Saigon called Cu Chi. These had been started under French occupation and were extended and expanded when the Americans arrived. They have been enlarged so that tourists can crawl through them, which we did.

Just ahead of us there was an ex-British squaddie now living in Thailand with his very young Thai girlfriend. He had been very gallantly carrying her pink handbag for her, but when she looked reluctant to enter the tunnels he became a lot less gallant and insisted. Halfway through she started having what sounded (from behind a Canadian tourist) like a panic attack. Lots of squeaking and squawking from her and gruff commands from him. When she calmed down a bit he got her to take a photo of him. She was still unwilling and there was more squeaking and squawking. Meanwhile the queue of crawling tourists was backing up. People were shouting from behind to get a move on. Even enlarged the tunnels were extremely hot, parts of them unlit and very uncomfortable.

I've mentioned the bread. Noodle soup is the other big hitter in Vietnam. On every street you can find someone with a tiny stall accompanied by tiny plastic stools and tiny tables. Little outside restaurants, like play areas for children. When you've chosen the one you fancy most, we usually do this by going to the one that looks busiest, you make your order and squat down on a mini stool.

They bring you your bowl of steaming pho and with it a large plate of herbs to shred and add to the soup. The herbs would cost you about £5 in a uk supermarket. Here the whole meal costs about a pound.

If noodle soup isn't your thing (it isn't) you can try a ban xeo a crisp, yellow pancake filled with beansprouts and pork and accompanied once again by a generous plateful of herbs. Or what about fresh spring rolls? Translucent rice paper wrapped around pork and, yes you've guessed it, herbs. Then dipped in a delicious sauce. All those herbs make Vietnamese cuisine fresh and light. Though I did accidentally order the insides of a chicken at one meal. Not the good bits. Those were neither fresh nor light.

Con Dao

Con Dao is a very small island which everyone has used as a prison - Vietnamese, French, American. They've all locked people up there and done nasty things to them. Now it's just starting to highlight on the tourist map.

At the moment it's still pretty untouristy. You see this best at the market. People aren't quite sure how much to rip you off. They know they should try. Sometimes their outlandish figure works and the stupid tourist pays it - hooray! But sometimes they go way over the top and the tourist walks away.

At one of the stunning beaches a woman had some deck chairs set up. We asked how much and she spouted numbers 50, 15, 150, 10,000.  Each time we asked how much she came out with a different number and because Vietnamese notes are so huge, they work in tens of thousand, amounts can really vary. I think 6S$ equals about 100,000 dong.

The pluses of not touristy are fairly obvious. The downsides are that there were no bars and very few restaurants. Ordering in one restaurant was a bit like being on a game show with a grumpy host. 'Can we have the stir-fried vegetables?' 'No!'. 'Okay, what about the Con Dao chicken?' 'No!'. Eventually we were pointed to some things we were allowed to eat. When the guidebook was printed there was no ATM on the island and there are lots of things you just can't get. Diet coke for example.  There's no diet coke on the island.

I know this because we did a lot of chatting with an American called Larry who runs a drive shop called Dive Dive Dive. He imports diet coke because you can't get it. Larry was extremely chatty. Enter his shop on the seafront and you won't leave quickly. He's also very nice as is his assistant, both very generous with their time and information.

I ended up doing my first dive with them. I've always found the idea of doing a padi rather dull. Messing around in a swimming pool for three days. Snorkeling seems so much easier. But, for a price, you can do a marvellous thing called a try dive. Basically someone does everything for you so all you have to do is remember to breath. As someone said to me, 'it's like you're a baby'.

Con Doa has amazing coral reefs and fish attracted by them. We were lucky enough to see cuttlefish mating and planting their eggs in the coral. They seemed completely unafraid of us, happy to mate and lay their eggs with us looking on. They didn't seem too bothered when we stroked them except for their silky skin changing colour and texture in response to our touch.

It's a weird experience being under water. About an hour into my first dive, completely waterlogged, I had this very strong feeling that people really weren't designed for being underwater like that. But it was an incredible experience.

Pretty amazing eh?

All in all it was a very good break.

 At the Reunification Palace in Saigon
 The Cu Chi Tunnels
Vietnam has wonderful, chocolately coffee.
 There are scooters everywhere. Sometimes with two people with a baby tucked between them. The baby never has a helmet.
 The prison at Con Dao
 The prison has these rather eerie models inside the cells.

 Beach Paradise.

 The little port of Ben Dam. The sailors were all in port because it was too rough to be out. They start drinking at 8am in the morning. When they were in Con Dao town where we were staying all the beer sold out.

On the left under some onions are the chicken insides.