Saturday March 15, 2014

We flew back into the madness and mayhem on Thursday – from the peace’n’quiet of Hoi Ann to the energetic, well-ordered chaos of Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it’s still called by many locals). A mere 10 million people riding 5 million motorbikes (according to the stats) – and I reckon they ALL hit the road whenever we went driving!

You know the feeling you get on NZ roads when a big bunch of motorcyclists overtake you? Well, multiply that feeling by at least several thousand – and repeat it at every intersection – and you’ll start to get close to what it’s like in this bursting-at-the-seams Asian metropolis. Imagine torrents of helmet-clad bikers (often mum, dad and the kids) whizzing around you, behind you, in front of you, straight for you, and (seemingly) underneath you! Frankly, it’s wonderful! Don’t ask me what the road-rules are (survival of the fittest?), but the system (or lack of it) works amazingly well … and driving through Auckland just doesn’t compare.

Last night and the night before, we Kiwis bunked down in the glorious Hotel Majestic Saigon – the city’s second oldest hotel, oozing with olde-worlde charm. And, on that first night, we enjoyed a Bonsai Dinner Cruise along the city’s glittering waterfront (with live culture song’n’dance) before crawling between the sheets for some zzzz. Then yesterday morning, after weetbix and toast, we motored out through the rush-hour crush (then, later, past endless rubber-plantations) for yet another unforgettable Indochina experience: the remarkable Cu Chi Tunnels.

This 250km-long network of narrow underground bunkers and passageways was used by the communist forces (Viet Cong) to supply their soldiers in the south and pursue the long struggle for independence that they remember as the ‘American War’. If you’re feeling brave, you can even try some tunnel-crawling yourself – and several of us Mad Midlifers got down-and-dirty doing just that!

Then, after a rural lunch (humble surroundings, yummy food), we headed back into the city for a sobering, disturbing, discussion-provoking hour at Saigon’s huge War Remnants Museum. This scandalous chapter in military history cost 58,000 American GIs their lives … and left 3.5 million Vietnamese dead: most of them simple peasant farmers (along with their women and children) who understood little or nothing of the grand political theories being outworked here in this bombed-to-bits land.

Mixed feelings? For sure! I think we all had them yesterday … big time!

A new day, fortunately, has dawned for the resilient, forgiving Vietnamese. And, this morning, a new day dawned for us – with another countryside drive through lush delta-flats and lime-green paddyfields to the small town of My Tho. Awaiting our arrival was the truly lovely RV Mekong Pandaw – our luxury floating hotel for the next week. And, once we’d been welcomed on the sundeck, we unpacked in our teak-and-brass cabins and sat down to a scrumptious lunchious.

“There are few tapestries of river life as fascinating and varied as the Mekong River,” said one travel-website. And ahead of us, I gather, is a striking cultural contrast: the endlessly active Mekong Delta (the ‘ricebowl’ of Vietnam) vs. the tranquillity of Cambodia.

Oh boy, this is what we’ve been waiting for. Let the pampering begin!

TOMORROW: We cruise through stunning evergreen islands … visit a floating market and a rice-paper factory … and ride a sampan to the town of Sa Dec, the ‘little Venice of Asia’. So don’t, whatever you do, change channels …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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