On the Mekong Delta

As part of our time together with Juanita, Harold, Bev, and Terry, we spent a day in the Mekong River Delta.  We drove several hours from Saigon to Ben Tre where we went to a brick factory.  Several large ovens, fed by burning coconut husks, fire the mud bricks for about a week.  The result are the reddish bricks used in construction throughout the country.

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We boarded a long boat and headed up the Mekong.  This part of Vietnam is the centre of the country’s coconut industry.  Along the river, we saw boatloads of coconut being transferred by hand to processing plants.  We also stopped to see a small processing plant where the coconuts are husked by hand and the flesh is cut out by hand.  Of course we got to eat coconut and drink coconut milk.

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Next to the coconut husking area is a muddy creek.  Here, Aaron was the first to notice the mudskippers.  These little fish are as comfortable living in the water as they are living on land.  Fascinating creatures!

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We continued along the Mekong, at times snaking our way through narrow waterways in the delta.

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We disembarked near a village market which, not surprisingly, sold mostly fish.

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We made our way across a bridge to see a group of 4 women making floor mats, place mats, and the like.

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A ride in a large tuk tuk brought us to the pier where we boarded a large boat.

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Once on board, we rolled up our sleeves and made spring rolls.  We had a delicious lunch.

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At this point, our boat made its way along a wider section of the Mekong River, returning to Ben Tre.  From there, we drove back to Saigon.

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We all had a blast together on this excursion to the delta.  A huge thanks goes to Juanita who organized all of it!

The Mimosa Room

Well, well…it’s deja vu all over again.  It’s been several times in Asia that I’ve run into the name of my sister Mimosa.  It’s not a common name in Canada but since there’s a tropical plant called Mimosa, we ran into it often in India.  And, it was back in Australia that we visited Mimosa Rocks National Park.  Now in Saigon while together with my other sister Juanita, we came across the Mimosa Room while exploring the prestigious Rex Hotel.  It was almost like a family gathering…almost.

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Apocalypse Then

In North America, we usually refer to the war between the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese and Americans as the Vietnam War.  In Vietnam, it’s often referred to as the American War.

The War Remnants Museum

We visited the War Remnants Museum, a collection of documented atrocities perpetrated by the American Armed Forces during the war in Vietnam.  As the Lonely Planet online review states, “Many of these atrocities were well publicised in the West, but rarely do Westerners have the opportunity to hear the victims of US military action tell their own stories”.  The pictures and stories are not for the faint of heart.  Many are simply gruesome.  The actions taken by the American forces against the Vietnamese are nearly unbelievable in their complete lack of conscience and respect for human life.  As we’ve noted at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and at Cambodia’s Killing Fields and S21 Prison, you’d think that being witness to the absolute depravity and despair to which war brings people would be enough to end such conflicts in the future.

It’s important to visit places like the War Remnants Museum.  They are a stark and harsh reminder that fear and ignorance escalate so quickly into hatred and blind self-interest.  They are also a reminder that everyone has responsibility to embrace differences, promote peaceful living, and peaceful resolutions.

Note that in the pictures below, I have not included the most graphic images.

The grounds outside of the museum feature military equipment captured from the American forces.

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A small building in the property courtyard is a life size model of an American detention centre including the cages in which their enemies were held.

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A look inside the main building brings you to the accounts of what happened during the war, the international outrage at the American involvement in the war, and the stories of survivors.

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The following is the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the little girl who is seen fleeing her village just torched by American jets using napalm.  This image seared itself into the hearts and minds of the world and has become a symbol of the atrocities of the conflict in Vietnam.

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When ground attacks weren’t as effective as they hoped, American forces resorted to the use of chemical weapons including Agent Orange.  This defoliant aided the American and South Vietnamese troops in seeing their enemy by removing vegetation which provided cover for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops.  The long term consequences of the use of chemical weapons is still being felt.  Children in areas exposed to the chemicals have been born with severe abnormalities and deformities.

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There’s no doubt that this museum’s displays are written from the perspective of the Vietnamese victors and may be considered, like the Lonely Planet guidebook suggests, as “propagandist”.  This too is an important lesson.  Every person, culture, or government will record its own experience and history in a light favourable to their ideals.

The Lonely Planet guidebook says that the “War Remnants Museum is unique, brutal, and an essential stop”.  I agree with each of these points.  This stop provided an important education for all of us.

The Reunification Palace

Not far from the War Remnants museum is the Reunification Palace.  Following the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam, the North Vietnamese took over the entire country. “The first communist tanks in Saigon crashed through the gates of [the South Vietnamese presidential palace] on the morning of 30 April 1975 when Saigon surrendered to the North. The building is a time warp, having been left just as it looked on that momentous day” (Lonely Planet guidebook). From my childhood, I recall pictures of this building with helicopters evacuating personnel from its rooftop.

Today, the palace, now referred to as the Reunification Palace, remains as it was when captured in 1975. The grounds are host to a variety of military equipment including tanks and aircraft.

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Vietnam has a long history of military conflicts.  It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into this more recent war and the prolonged involvement of foreign armies in it.  It’s difficult to see the atrocities which took place.  Today, Vietnam enjoys peace and increasing prosperity.  This nation is a ‘rising tiger’ among the burgeoning Asian economies.

Blumenort meets Saigon

Several months back, my sister Juanita sent me an email to let us know that she, her husband Harold, and friends Bev and Terry were travelling to Vietnam and Thailand.  They would, she said, meet us in Saigon!

Juanita, Harold, Bev, and Terry all attended Blumenort School together back in the 1970s.  Juanita and Bev have been very close friends ever since.  Although Juanita and Harold live in Oregon and Bev and Terry live in Manitoba, they still see each other once or twice a year. 

Bev and Terry’s daughter teaches at Lertlah School in Bangkok along with Juanita and Harold’s daughter (that’s Olivia as mentioned in previous posts).  Their trip included a visit to their kids in Bangkok, time on Thailand’s beautiful islands, and a visit with us in Ho Chi Minh City.  We were so excited to see them.  We’ve had wonderful times with all of them before and looked forward to more of those out here on ‘foreign soil’.

To top that all off, it so happens that Glen, Harold and Terry’s former piano teacher in Steinbach, now makes Saigon his home.  In the 1970s (and likely earlier as well as later), Glen was by far the best piano teacher in Steinbach.  His students consistently won top awards at the annual festivals.  He moved to Vietnam 16 years ago and absolutely loves Ho Chi Minh City.

So, schmaunt fat meets nuoc cham, kielke meets bánh canh, Menno Simons meets Ho Chi Minh.  There’s nothing quite like a little bit of Plautdietsch in Vietnam, the land of dragons. 

We were so fortunate to meet with these friends and family!


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Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam.  It was once an important Khmer sea port prior to annexation by the Vietnamese in the 17th century.

Under the name Saigon, it was the capital of the French colony of Cochin-china and later of the independent republic of South Vietnam from 1955–75.  South Vietnam, as an anti-communist, capitalist republic, fought against the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, with aid from the United States and countries including Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.  Saigon fell when it was captured by the communists on 30 April 1975, ending the war with a Communist victory.  Vietnam was then turned into a communist state with the South overtaken.  On 2 July 1976, Saigon merged with the surrounding Gia ??nh Province and was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after H? Chí Minh (although the name Sài Gòn is still commonly used).

The city center is situated on the banks of the Saigon River, 60 kilometers (37 mi) from the South China Sea and 1,760 kilometers (1,090 mi) south of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.

The metropolitan area is populated by more than 9,000,000 people, making it the most populous metropolitan area in Vietnam and the countries of the former French Indochina.                                                     (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ho_Chi_Minh_City)

Our arrival in Ho Chi Minh City was less than ceremonious.  The train came to a stop on a side platform, from where we walked to the station.  Inside the station, we prepared, as we’ve done dozens of times before at stations, for the onslaught of taxi drivers out on the street, scrambling to be the ‘lucky’ hopeful to drive us to our hotel.  This time, we came outside to, well, no throng at all.  It was a rather quiet if not anticlimactic entrance into this city.  We did find a taxi, however, and made our way to District 1, the centre of the metropolis.

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On to Saigon

We left Nha Trang’s manicured boulevards and parks for the southern city of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as it’s been officially called since 1976.

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Not having had a good night’s sleep on the night train to Nha Trang, we chose to take a daytime train to Saigon. The seats certainly weren’t anything like those represented in the pictures at the train station but we settled in for the 8 hour journey in the rickety seats we had reserved.

On the train, ladies came up and down the aisles offering foods such as baby duck eggs (boiled eggs of fully developed ready-to-hatch ducklings), roasted birds (heads still on), popcorn, chips, and rice dishes. I ordered a decidedly non-exotic ice coffee. As it turns out, it wasn’t the benign drink I thought it would be. I will have picked up a stomach bug from it. This certainly dragged me down for the next few days, leaving me with low energy and no appetite. This was the worst I’ve felt throughout the entire trip.

We were really looking forward to our time in Ho Chi Minh City since my sister Juanita, her husband Harold, and friends Bev and Terry were going to meet us there!

Vietnam vet?

The friendly man pictured below wheeled his way over to me as I was walking down a street in Nha Trang. Not quite sure if I was getting fleeced, I listened to his claim that he is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He said he had lost both legs in the conflict when fighting for the south Vietnam army. He hoped I might buy some postcards from him. Was he being honest with me or was he simply an opportunistic businessman?

I purchased a set of his postcards.

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Fun in the sun…and drizzle

Nha Trang is known as a ‘fun in the sun’ beach destination on the Vietnamese coast.  During the three days we spent there, however, the weather was usually overcast with the occasional drizzle.  Nonetheless, we did spend time at the beach especially when the sun did come out.

The waves were large and powerful every day we were there.  My hunch is that this is just the way the surf is at Nha Trang.  The waves were typically between 2 and 3 metres in height and sometimes more than that.  The powerful undertow occasionally took Aaron off his feet.  Needless to say, we played in the surf cautiously.  We still had a great time diving into the waves, outrunning them onto the beach, and trying to limit the amount of sand collected in our swimming suits.

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We saw men cutting down coconuts from the palms that line the beach. These men, who climbed up the palm trunks without harnesses or any safety equipment, tied a rope to the coconut clumps and then lowered them down to people waiting on the ground.

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When the days weren’t as nice, we spent time browsing the shops and bakeries.  The French legacy in Vietnam includes amazing breads and pastries.  We also enjoyed pizza one evening and made sure we ordered the Emiliana pizza (see pic below).

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On a particularly rainy afternoon, Mary-Anna and I went to a spa where she had a 60 minute foot massage, I had the callouses on my feet ‘scraped’, Mary-Anna had her hair cut, coloured, and highlighted, I had a 90 minute Swedish massage, and I had my ears cleaned in a traditional Vietnamese way.  Emily-Ann and Madeleine joined us a bit later.  Madeleine had one of her ears pierced and both girls had their hair cut and styled.  All this set us back about $100.

Although we didn’t get the amount of time in the sun we had anticipated, we enjoyed the atmosphere of Nha Trang.

Overnight train to Nha Trang

The overnight train trip from Danang to Nha Trang was interesting.  We hadn’t been able to get berths together so were spread out into four areas in two cars.  Aaron’s and Madeleine’s berths were in the same compartment.  The rest of us were entertained in our compartments, which had four beds in each, by Vietnamese travellers. 

In my case, I found my berth, a rumpled upper bunk, and after removing a bug or two from it, climbed in.  Together with me in my compartment was a dad and his 10 year old daughter in a lower berth, a grandfather with his constantly blubbering and ‘schlemming’ grandson in the other lower berth, and two guys about 30 years old sharing the other upper berth.  While these others slept two to a bed, I was hard pressed to fit into my bunk on my own.  Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much but instead spent time improving my skills at the Angry Birds game on  my iPod.  At about 4:00 a.m., the two men on the other upper berth left the train in a sudden flurry of turning the lights on, grabbing their bags, and exiting with a lot of commotion.  Since no one else in the compartment had noticed this exodus and the consequently brightly illuminated room, the light stayed on until sunrise.  This at least gave me better light to do some reading.

At about 6:00 a.m, the others in the compartment stirred and awoke for the day.  The boy, who during the night had mercifully had stopped his feigned but prolonged discomforts which resulted in endless whining, started up again now that the new day had begun.  His grandfather, who now had been joined by his wife in the compartment, tried hopelessly to console the boy by wiping his face with a wet cloth, and fanning him alternately with his jacket then hat then jacket.  No such luck.

A short time later, the dad and his daughter were joined by his wife and two other children who all materialized from elsewhere in the train.  I saw later that two adults and three kids had been sleeping on a piece of foam in a small compartment about 1.5 meters by 1 metre just down from our sleeping quarters.

The families bought what in essence is noodle soup in plastic bowls from one of the many vendors who advertised their wares by sticking their heads into our compartment as they passed by, one every 60 seconds or so.  Now there were 4 adults and 4 children along with me all sitting in the lower two bunks.  Cozy!  The families slurped their soup with gusto, stopping occasionally to look at me, say a variety of indiscernible words, laugh, then continue eating.

After their breakfast, the father encouraged his son to practice his English language skills with me.  I spent a good part of the next hour responding to, “What is this?” as he pointed to all the objects large and miniscule in the tiny room.  He and his dad would repeat my words such as “That is a noodle” then have a good laugh together.

One girl, about 10 years old, with beautiful hazel brown eyes, constantly looked at me with what seemed to me a mixture of fright and intrigue.  Whenever I would look at her and smile to show that I wasn’t the devil incarnate, the girl would look away in horror and seemed ready to jump out of her skin.  This looking at me and looking away kept going as I continued to enlighten the boy and his dad in the English names for blanket, shoes, window, paper, floor, nose, elbow, etc. etc.

The grandmother, who seemed to have a permanent smile stuck to her face, asked me using hand gestures how old I was.  Granted, I only guessed this is what she was asking via a process of elimination.  I responded with showing the numbers on my fingers.  When she continued to ask questions, I thought it easiest to show them my passport.  Since I carry all of our family’s passports, I took them all out.  This started a flurry of interest in the pictures and information in the documents.  I then proceeded in my best Vietnamese sign language to tell them that the other family members were also on the train but were sleeping.  These new details about me were obviously fascinating.  So, now that I was on a roll, I took out my computer and proceeded to show them pictures of my family and the places we had visited on the trip.   Soon, I had the kids, including the shy girl with hazel brown eyes, crowding around me and practically on top of me while the adults loudly scolded them since they couldn’t see the screen as a result of the constant melee of the kids jockeying for the best view.

This drama continued until the grandmother suddenly stopped, looked outside, and told me that we were in Nha Trang, my destination.  Since the train doesn’t stop for that many minutes, I hurriedly packed up my things and squeezed out of the train as new passengers were boarding.  On the platform, I found the rest of my family waiting, also rather bleary-eyed.  As I turned to wave to the Vietnamese families now pressed to the windows of the compartment we recently shared, I wondered what stories the rest of my family would have about this train journey.

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Boating the Thu Bon River

We had booked a night train to Nha Trang so we needed to look for something to do for our last afternoon in Hoi An.  We decided to rent a boat (with a driver) to take us to several local villages which are also located on the Thu Bon River.

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The boat’s ‘captain’ made our first stop at a floating fuel station where we picked up a water jug full of diesel fuel.

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We then headed off up river, past some large homes and boats from a local fishing fleet.

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Our boat captain headed straight for a small boat from which local fishermen were casting a net.  We watched as one of the men steered the boat and kept it steady while the other man threw out the net, twisting his body and hurling the large round net like a discus thrower.  As our boat came closer, one of the men motioned for us to come to them.  Once our boats were side by side, the man with the net gestured to me that I should try to cast the net.  Well, I did and managed not to fall in the water in the process.  He was gracious enough not to laugh too hard at my attempt at this fishing technique.

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Not having helped the men catch any fish, we waved farewell to them and continued our way along the river until we came to a small inlet.  There, we entered a small channel lined with small fishing boats.  This was the fishing village we were looking for.

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After watching the fishermen at their boats and waving back at the little girl and her grandmother in a round boat (see pics above), we headed back onto the river.  A kilometre or two up river, our boat captain, who didn’t speak any English, motioned for Aaron to take control of the tiller while she added the previously purchased bottle of diesel fuel to the tank.  Aaron had great fun steering the boat.

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Our captain once again took over the tiller and we chugged our way further up stream.  We passed fishermen in their boats, farmers working their fields, cows grazing on the river banks, bamboo houses, and a variety of wildlife.

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We turned back towards Hoi An but went around a large island before reaching the wharf.  We passed several ferries heavily loaded with motorbikes, people, and produce.

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The sun was setting as we nosed into the dock back in Hoi An.  We stopped for a bite to eat before walking back to our hotel from where we caught a taxi to the train station.

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We always enjoy getting out onto a river or body of water. It provides a different perspective on the people and places we visit and usually bring us closer to an area’s natural scenery.  Whether from the water or from the streets, Hoi An is is a unique place full of history and a vibrancy that makes one want to stay longer.