Thursday, 2 January 2014

Auf wiedersehen, Viet

Hopefully, the end of this post will contain some semblance of my impressions of Vietnam, but it's very difficult to write those at this moment. More so than I would have thought, actually, but I shall come to the reasons for that in a minute.

To pick up where I left off, then: let me tell you about Can Tho.
Three times the size of My Tho or Vinh Luong, Can Tho is the hub of the Mekong Delta. It's a big city, of which I saw only a tiny portion - as with Hanoi and Saigon, Can Tho has a very distinct tourist centre, with the rest of the city extending in a grid pattern in a series of districts, with no real reason for tourists to go there (although I suspect it would be quite fun to go to at least one of them, selected at random, on a bus in Saigon). The tourist area in Can Tho is, as you would expect, concentrated around the riverside.

Exploring on my first night, I came across an outdoor display of photographs lining the steps and courtyard of the museum. It was, I think, the tenth anniversary of the museum. The coffee shops in the courtyard were open and busy, and there were children playing up and down the museum steps. It was maybe 8pm, and there was no indication of when the museum would close, but I was pretty sure someone in uniform would summarily kick me out if necessary so I wandered in.

Night at the Museum

 I don't have any photos of the exhibits, as in contrast to the lack of information about opening hours, there was plenty about the potential consequences of wearing shorts into the museum, or taking photos without permission. I'm not sure what the full extent of the law is for unauthorised photography in Vietnam, but I decided not to chance it.

Not a large building, it consisted of two stories, laid out in a hemisphere. The ground floor exhibits were primarily friezes of Can Tho life - traditional dress, temples, a wedding ceremony, and of course a representation of the local clerk's office. There was some information in English about an archaeological expedition, and interpretations of how life may have looked 3-400 years ago based on the findings from that trip.
The upper floor was all about the political, social and economic impact on Can Tho of the American War. Mainly photographic (apart from some weaponry), the pictures were a gruesome record of deaths inflicted by bomb and bayonet - charred remains, and disembowelled corpses stared out of the walls. Others showed high profile local guerilla fighters, or the daily activities of resistance - laying explosives or manufacturing chain bombs; dismantling abandoned US posts for barbed wire to use to fortify the town; women making rations for those who went to fight.

The tone of the exhibition was anything but neutral. I don't think it was trying to be, but it's quite hard to tell. Even wandering around the British Museum (which I would put money on priding itself on its cultural and historical neutrality) there is bias - the mere presence of some of the exhibits, for a start. It is interesting to ponder impressions other people may form of something that I would think has been presented as neutrally as possible. It's also interesting to wonder whether I see bias in the way this was presented not because there is any, but because it is of a political flavour that it quite alien to me.

With only two nights in Can Tho, the next morning I was awake at 5, and at 5.30 was sitting in a boat on the river, ready for a tour of the floating markets and Mekong life.

Getting back at 12.30, I hid from the midday heat, and booked onward travel and accommodation to Phu Quoc island through my guesthouse, where I would stay for New Year. Tropical islands aren't my thing, usually, but the guidebook described this one as the Platonic form of a tropical island, so if anything was going to turn me, this would be it. 

Funny thing about Mekong delta cities - they're all full of chickens. Not needing to be up until 6:45, I was woken at 5:30 by the cockerel in the next alley. And at 6:00. And at 6:15. There are many sunrises in the Mekong, it seems.
Two buses, a ferry and another bus got me to Duong Dong, the main town on Phu Quoc island, and I set out to walk to my hotel.
Turning down several offers of moto-taxis, it turned out to be about a km walk out of town along the main road. There was no pavement, and yet a steady stream of tourists were walking along the verge in one direction or another, as it seems all of the accommodation and restaurants are accessed from this road, and then back onto Long Beach. It makes for an extraordinarily strange atmosphere, as tourists tramp along a hot road in the sun to get into and out of town, rather than being able to walk in along the beach (it is blocked half-way by some sort of construction).

I eventually found my hotel, and found reception, where a smiling staff member informed me they were full. Several iterations of my having a reservation/ booking, were met with the same response - no. Full, I managed to get past this friendly yet insistent gate-keeper, and worked out the booking had been made in the name of my guesthouse in Can Tho - showing their card got me checked in. Several people I'd met on the way to the ferry had no reservations, and while I was checking in a slightly desperate traveller was asking if it was allowed for him to pitch a tent there as he was unable to find a room anywhere. I hope they all managed to find a bed.

My room was very basic - for the first time in Vietnam, I had no a/c nor hot water - and yet it was by far the most I had paid: at $15 a night, more than 50% above anywhere else I had stayed. I dumped my things, had a (cold) shower, and headed back out for a walk along the beach (not yet realising this would not take me into town!). Having walked past all of the restaurants (probably for the best), I got to the night market, where the food is actually excellent - spanking fresh fish cooked to order on a barbeque. There are many choices of venue, all serving exactly the same things, but that's ok for me when it's a huge range of fresh fish and seafood that you're limited to.

On my return to my room, I discovered this had happened to my ankle:

The blisters are about twice that size now. I'm hoping they start going away soon, because they're annoying. Any ideas for stupidly overzealous immune responses to insect bites?

I spent most of the next day in a coffee shop booking onward travel to Cambodia for New Year's Day. A one-day delta tour from Saigon would probably have been sufficient, and I could have skipped Phu Quoc and headed to Cambodia earlier, I suppose. Still, I can't say doing it this way hasn't been an adventure, and I'm sure the experience will prove useful. And I got a half-decent sunset on 2013

So, life's a beach, huh?

I spent yesterday travelling to Cambodia, so I feel I should do some sort of summary of Vietnam. But that's difficult right now because I think I'm going to fall in love with Cambodia in a way I just didn't with Vietnam, although I feel I ought to be fairer to Vietnam than that. It was my first stop, and it was good to me.

For me, I think, it was just the limitations of travelling by myself. Most of the areas that are easily accessible with public transport are coastal, so you get beaches. If I'd hired a bike, and ridden up along the Ho Chi Minh trail through the mountains, it would have suited me better, but with my own limitations (yours may vary) I couldn't have done that. The one part that did follow that pattern, around Dalat, was I think my highlight of Vietnam. Were I to be tempted back, it would be for that reason.

1 comment:

  1. So, get motorcycle licence, then go to Vietnam?