Saigon streets and Mekong boat trip is the second post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous one please read this.

Greeting from the other side of the world – Porper story #1

I slept over 12 hours last night (I forced myself to wake up for a bit and watch the Americans walk into the Olympic arena, but that was about all I could handle), and I feel so much better. No more room spinning, thank god.

I will tell you up front that this is going to be another marathon email, as this is turning out to be the only way I can document this trip. Just unsubscribe by deleting these if you aren’t into it, as these stories are as much for me as for those of you who are interested. And no one has ever accused me of having nothing to say..

Amazing moments at breakfast.

First off, I have to describe breakfast. Unbelievable. A huge buffet with all the traditional yucky breakfast foods (which of course I scrupulously avoided), but also veritable utopia of local cuisine options. I ate BBQ pork ribs in sesame sauce (yum), dim sum, tiny octopus in a hot sweet sauce (yummier), sautéed vegetables in garlic sauce (with real mushrooms!), noodles, a bowl of beef pho, fruit the likes of which I have never seen (bright hot pink skin and white insides with black seeds??? delicious) and two cups of damn good coffee. It was one of the best meals I ever ate. Mind you – it was 7am.

But here is the best part. Over by the pancake station, there were several bowls of rather unusual toppings. Some weird tamarind jelly looking thing and some other bowl of lemon curd looking thing (clearly, what traditionally goes on the top of pancakes escapes the locals). But there on the table -sitting all by its lonesome self , and emanating what I am sure was a faint halo, was a bowl of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. And I am not kidding you when I say that I scooped a rather embarrassingly large portion, took it back to the table, and spooned fed myself the entire thing. Yessiree, Breakfast of Champions. Puts a new spin on an octopus chaser. And I will do it again tomorrow if given the chance.

Saigon streets.

Well, here is my initial assessment of Saigon. The people are very friendly (and so tiny!), but the city itself is dirty, over-crowded and noisy. The streets are flooded with those mopeds at all times, and as a result, the air is smelly and very polluted. Most of the women ride around with shmatas covering their mouths and noses to keep out the pollution but I guess the men don’t care so much for that particular fashion statement because they ride native. Hundreds of mopeds travel along the road like schools of fish – swaying together and communicating by honking their horns to announce themselves to other riders. There are no traffic rules and pedestrians crossing the street do so at their own risk. What you do is walk slowly across the streams of mopeds to give them a chance to separate in front of you. If you are lucky, they do. Your goal is basically to survive the exercise, which is not exactly for the feint of heart.

Saigon streets

Being the good tourist that I am, yesterday I went first to the open market in hopes of spending some good American dollars. The market here very much resembles the markets in Mexico – stall after repetitive stall of the same kitschy chatchkes. Everywhere I walked, people jumped up and accosted me, saying “Madame, come see what I have. Madame, come look and buy.” Now while I really like being referred to as a Madame (it lends a certain elegance, if not innuendo) it got tiresome. And I bought absolutely nothing – which is definitely a Porper first. My usual MO is vini, vicci and shop. Oh well, the trip is young and there are many more shopping days left. Thankfully.

Saigon streets

It takes some getting used to the rhythm of this city. All along the streets, women are sitting on the curbs in squalor, selling the same few things. Some unusual fruits and spices, and I don’t know how they make a living. The men are sitting on mopeds or cyclos (bicycles with a carriage to transport you), and waiting for tourists in need of a ride. For the life of me, I don’t know how they all know I am a tourist, but I couldn’t walk 5 steps in either direction without being harassed for a ride. One guy rode up on his cyclo and, as a sales technique, struck up a conversation. Maybe he thought it would tire me and I would need a ride. Anyway, when he found out I was an American, he lifted up his shirt and showed me the scars on his arms and stomach (I am guessing from the war) and it felt like an attempt to guilt me into hiring him. It was disturbing and creepy and I just kept walking.

Saigon streets

Mekong Delta boat trip

I decided to bag the city today because its too hot and the air is really bad, and I booked an excursion to the Mekong Delta. I had a private tour guide and a driver for the entire day, and it was quite a memorable experience. The Mekong Delta is a jungle cris-crossed by the Mekong River and various canals. It was a spectacular trip. Before we arrived, we did a side tour of a very cool Buddhist temple. The statue of Buddha in front made the Madonna in Revere look junior league. We got there just as the monks were eating their one meal of the day – which they are required to eat before noon because apparently, Buddha owns the first part of the day and the Devil owns the second. Who knew?

Once we actually got to the Delta, we took several different types of boats up and down the canals and stopped at different islands along the way. Each is known for something different. The first one grows only fruit – kinds which I have never seen or heard of before. At one point, we stopped and had tea and 6 or 7 kinds of fruit while members of a local family sang Vietnamese folk songs. Vietnamese music is not what I would call soothing to the ear, but it was a wonderful experience. After the singing was done, the family tried to get me to buy their CD. The whole family was on the cover dressed in traditional clothing – kind of the Vietnamese version of the Von Trapp Family. I declined on the CD but tipped well to make up for it.

The next island is famous for making coconut candy, tending bee hives and housing pythons. An, my guide, asked if I wanted a picture with a python. I said no and he said yes and I said no again, and then he took my camera, placed the effing python over my shoulders and took the picture. I was rather freaked out, but kept my cool because hey – I don’t want to be a bad guest. It turned out to be fine and I can only imagine what that picture will look like.

Then we walked around the jungle some more and sat for tea again. This time, we had tea with fresh honey and tamarind fruit. Bees were swarming everywhere.  So the tea person comes to the table, pours fresh honey into a cup and several bees immediately dive-bomb into the cup too. Apparently, they are quite enamored of their own handiwork. They swim around until she scoops them out with a spoon, squeezes the tamarind into the cup, tops it off with tea and down the hatch it goes. People – you gotta kind of go with the flow here.

So after a donkey ride into the jungle, we go on a banana boat ride (I swear its just like you would picture it – all the women are wearing the traditional cone straw hats while paddling the boat). It’s almost surreal how authentic it is. We get to the lunch place, and An abandons me to have lunch with the other guides. This is a mistake. By this time, it’s around 1pm and it is so damn hot and humid in the jungle that I am dripping sweat. On the lunch table are several plates of leaves and noodles covered with saran wrap, and a napkin holder with what I think are napkins. I don’t know what I am supposed to do, but I am sweating like a piglet so I take a napkin and swab my face. I know immediately that something isn’t right – the napkin is sticky and waxy. I fear a major faux paux but still I don’t know what to do.

Soon, the waitress comes to the table bringing an entire fried fish. She de-bones the fish in about 30 seconds, unwraps all of the dishes, takes a ‘napkin’, dips it in water and proceeds to make spring rolls with it. I am appalled at my ignorance, and hope that no one saw me. And they were the best damn spring rolls I ever ate. And the food just kept coming too – there was beef and something else I couldn’t identify, little fried things that could have been sweet potatoes, a shrimp the size of my fist and pork fried rice. It was ridiculous – but then she comes back with one of those little gas cookers and makes soup right at the table (if you have ever been to that Cambodian/Vietnamese restaurant in Lynn – this was that soup). It was chock full of shrimp, squid, more un-identifiable vegetables and what I swear were somebody’s balls. I didn’t ask, I just ate.

Finally, lunch was over and we took the boat back to the car and back to Saigon. Along the way, people were bringing their goods to the market near town – and the mopeds were stacked with goods in boxes and bags. The funniest sight were the ones stacked with baskets of squawking chickens and geese with their heads poking out – my guess is that they were squawking their last few squawks before dinner. Ours, not theirs… 

Mekong Cycling - Vietnam Cycling tours at trails

Anyway – if you can’t tell, I am already totally smitten with this country and having a blast. It is so utterly different than anything I have ever seen and full of unexpected surprises. This is definitely my kind of gig.

OK – enough of this rambling. More tomorrow. If you can stand it.

by Rochelle Porper from Boston, Massachusetts, USA

For the next ones among this Vietnam travel experience, you can jump to the following days.

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