Huge fun on a Vespa Saigon After Dark street food tour.
A more relaxing two days on a Bassac Boat on the Mekong Delta, learning how the people live and work here.
Flying into Saigon from Hanoi we were met by our guide and driver and taken swiftly to the city, though not so swiftly through the rather dense traffic once we'd got there! Saigon is infamous for the masses of motorcycles on its roads.
We were staying at the Liberty Central Riverside Hotel, a beautiful hotel right on the Saigon River. We had had a very busy time since we'd arrived in Vietnam and decided not to rush around trying to see things in the city - there wasn't anything we were desperate to see and we had an evening street food tour booked which we knew would be taking us through the city to many different areas.
Many people visit the tunnels used by the Viet Cong in the American/Vietnamese war which continued from 1960 until 1975. We had read that the tunnels tend to be rather unatmospheric and crowded with tourists, and we didn't feel we could get much from a hurried visit.
Instead we elected to have a leisurely lunch in the hotel rooftop bar overlooking the river.
Our street food tour was by Vespa and the pick-up was at 6pm at our hotel. We were kitted out with helmets and then off we went to the rendezvous point in a lively bar in the city. To say the ride was exhilarating is the understatement of the century! We were only passengers, of course, and our drivers were real experts at negotiated the totally mad traffic of Saigon - most of it on two wheels!
There were six of us in our group: we two, two English girls and an Australian couple.
After cocktails and introductions we were back on the Vespas to our first food stop, a seafood restaurant where we were shown, among other things, all the different varieties of snails available!
We had snails, frogs, clams, mussels, all in various sauces, some with chopped peanuts. Most of the shellfish, apart from gorgeous soft shell crab claws, didn't actually taste of much. There was also a plate of beef and fries for those who couldn't eat shellfish!
A couple of beers each then back on the bikes.
We travelled along Ho Chi Minh Square in the centre of the city, passing the People's Committee Building, once the Hotel de Ville. The long French occupation of Vietnam can be seen in the many remnants of colonial architecture, especially in the cities.
Saigon was captured by the French in 1859 and French colonial rule was gradually extended over the rest of the country until the end of the Second World War when the struggles began with the Viet Minh. These continued until 1954 with the effective defeat of the French and the splitting of Vietnam into South and communist North. Only 6 years later the Vietnam/American War began.
At our next stop we had slices of fresh watermelon and light, crispy prawn and pork pancakes and a weird jelly-rice topped with chopped spring onion, peanut, chilli and ginger - I really didn't like the jelly stuff but the rest was good. More beers!
At this stage the Australian couple called it a night but the rest of us went on to a cabaret bar which was decorated for Christmas and had a very good female jazz singer, then on to a club with a heavy metal band. I had excellent ginger tea in the cabaret bar but back to cocktails in the club!
It was a long and extremely fun evening. The Vespa rides through the city were fantastic and the food was great. And we'd seen many sides of the city we might otherwise not have experienced - highly recommended!
Our car came promptly at 8 a.m. to the hotel for the drive to the Mekong Delta where we were to spend a night on a boat. On the way we travelled through agricultural land and noticed many shrines and graves in the middle of the fields. These are ancestor graves in the places where the deceased used to live and work.
On the way we stopped at an extremely colourful Cao Dai Temple. The monotheistic religion, only formulated in the early twentieth century, takes elements from several others including Buddhism, Taoism and Roman Catholicism. Adherents believe that mediums can communicate with the dead who will guide them through life.
Cao Dai promotes the concept of a "good" person who aims to escape the reincarnation cycle by living a good life abiding by many tenets recognisable from the other religions such as not killing or stealing.
Before we joined our boat to cruise the Mekong Delta we were taken on a long low-level boat to cruise the waterways and visit a traditional manufacturer of coconut candy and rice-paper.
The coconut candy is made with coconut milk extracted from the pressed coconut flesh. This is mixed with malt (from rice I think) and sugar. This is heated together to create the pliable candy mix which is then cooled and cut into chunks. The candy pieces are wrapped in rice paper, made from rice water poured onto some kind of cloth stretched over a pan of boiling water.
Traditionally every step would have been done by hand but machines help out nowadays.
They also made popped rice here, I think it went into a different candy. Sand is heated up to a very high temperature and then the rice is mixed with it causing it to expand. The mixture is sieved to separate the rice and sand.
After we'd seen all the demos we were given a cup of tea and pieces of local sweets to try - the peanut brittle was good, the strips of ginger quite hot. We also had our hands smeared with "royal jelly" from bees - very sticky but supposed to be very good for the skin.
We also got to try a little of the snake rice wine, traditionally made with a cobra and very potent! They also make one with a snake and scorpion in the bottle!
The factory was on quite a peaceful stretch of the river, less sparsely populated, with many coconut palms.
We were then taken from the verdant river area of the coconut candy manufacturer back through a busier stretch of the river to Cai Be to board our Bassac Boat, perhaps half an hour on the water.
There was lots of interest on the water - many people fishing with traditional nets off the back of their boat, barges hauling goods, services for the businesses and homes lining both banks of the river. It's very much a working environment.
I find working rivers endlessly fascinating, many great European cities were founded on equally great rivers which would have been as crowded and busy as this one in times past.
The Bassac Boat is a copy of a traditional rice barge, typical of the Mekong Delta. It's fairly small and we had one of only two upper deck cabins. It is all wood and looks distinctly more attractive than many of the white boats at Halong Bay.
Because it is so small we had brought only a small overnight bag and left our cases with the car.
As we set off lunch was served, fabulous prawns boiled in coconut water plus lots of other things.
For the rest of the afternoon we sailed further out into the Delta with its endlessly fascinating traffic.
We sailed along the Tien Gang River which branches into the Cho Lach canal. Mostly the riverbanks were much less built-up than where we had started from but we did pass by one or two towns.
We saw many temples of different styles. Vietnam is predominantly Buddhist but Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity have all been influential in Vietnamese spiritual life.
On the Mang Thit River we boarded a smaller boat to be taken to visit a traditional Mekong Delta village.
The village was set among orchards and rice paddies and the ground was obviously extremely fertile judging by the wide variety of fruit that grow here: banana, guava, mango, dragon fruit, water apple, lime - which they call lemon, they don't have yellow lemons.
We'd never come across water coconut before. These grow in agave-type plants in swampy conditions and apparently taste just like ordinary coconut.
We passed by simple homes on our way to the paddy fields. It must be a very challenging environment to live in, constantly damp and muddy.
At one of the houses tables had been laid outside with many different fruits for us to try including jackfruit which is like mango but rubbery in texture. The mango itself was excellent, also the coconut strips prepared with sugar. There were some flat crispy banana strips with some kind of seeds which were also very good.
It was getting quite dark by the time we left and there was a lovely sunset over the Delta. The boat was all lit up when we returned and as we freshened up and ate dinner it sailed on through the Delta.
The food was again very good, an unusual tomato soup, fried pork spring rolls, and an excellent sea bass in lemon sauce. A beef dish was not so exciting but we finished off with pancakes with small bananas and a thick chocolate sauce.
It had been a fascinating day on the Mekong Delta with more to come tomorrow.