March 3, 2010

Dare I say that Vietnam is my favorite stop on the voyage so far, but it seems that each destination gets better than the last. We arrived in what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City, but nearly all of its residents still refer to it as Saigon. The heat was sweltering, the traffic chaotic, and my excitement was at a fever pitch. As soon as you walk the streets, the first thing you notice is the overwhelming motorbike army on the streets of Vietnam. Mopeds, motorbikes, scooters, and motorcycles as far as the eye can see. Buses and trucks are common sights as well, but personal automobiles are nearly absent from the city streets. I joked with some of my friends that half of the fun of being in Saigon was negotiating traffic crossing the street. Traffic lights were few and far between, and crosswalks were present, but more as a sort of wishful thinking than an actual functioning entity. In order to cross, the best method was to walk deliberately, at a steady pace and the motorbike armies would avoid you. Oftentimes, this resulted in crossing the street in what appeared to be a swarm of bees. Once I learned to negotiate traffic, I headed out to grab some pho for lunch. Pho is a Vietnamese rice-noodle soup that comes in many different varieties. We chose a spot that looked tasty and was in close proximity to a large indoor market, and it turns out that Bill Clinton had at one time visited this same restaurant for a bowl of pho. Lunch was delicious and we then hit the market, which was similar in many ways to those of China, but also had its own unique dynamic. After cruising the market for a few hours, we headed out for a Hindu temple a few blocks away. It was really interesting to observe one of the last operating Hindu temples in Saigon. After some time just wandering the streets and taking in the sights and the culture, we spent some time at the War Remnants Museum. It was an eye-opening experience to see the Vietnam War portrayed from the perspective of the Vietnamese. The opinions on American actions during the war were made very clear through the extensive amounts of photographs of massacred Vietnamese hamlets and the horrifying effects of the copious amounts of chemicals and Agent Orange used by the US. I was able to see from a perspective very seldom even contemplated back home, and it was an intense experience, a must see for anyone in Saigon. That night a group of us went out to get dinner downtown with my friend's mom who was a part of the SAS parent trip set up for parents of voyagers to meet up at a port and spend some time together. The second day in Saigon, I spent some time at a food market and wandered the streets for a few more hours. We met a German medical student who was in Saigon to work at their hospital for a few weeks. We shared lunch with him and spent some of the afternoon with him marveling about various parts of Vietnamese culture. That night I packed and prepared for my three day trip to Cat Tien National Park. Bright and early the next morning, we headed from the ship to Cat Tien, about a four hour trip by bus from Saigon. Traveling through the Vietnamese countryside was a spectacle in and of itself and observing the traffic flows from within was certainly a sight to see. Once we arrived at the park, we took a small ferryboat across the river and arrived at the visitor center and cabins. We ate lunch, received our rooming assignments, settled in, and then headed out to explore the park. We had a few hours of free time to hike some trails and up the exposed rocks of the river bed. We had gone out in search of the rapids, but during the dry season it's a pretty mellow creek with tons of exposed rocks, great fun to climb on and hop across. We later met up with a guide and set out to further explore the park. We went out on a night safari that evening, which wasn't exactly aptly named since there wasn't much wildlife to observe aside from some deer and a couple of wild boars. We learned that the rhinos and elephants that we had hoped to see in the park are few and far between. There are roughly three rhinos left and somewhere along the lines of 15 elephants, located in a separate more remote area of the park. However, monkeys were not in short supply around the central area of the park, they were a common sight trying to steal food from the open-air canteen where our meals were served. On the second day, we trekked most of the day, heading first to Crocodile Lake. It turns out that this location was more aptly named and we were able to observe one adult crocodile and a few babies in the lake. We spent some time there exploring, had lunch, and went canoeing out on the lake for a couple hours in the early afternoon. We then headed out for a lava tube cave called Bat Cave and, much to our dismay, there were no bats in sight, not even Alfred or the Batmobile. Bummer. We then had some free time to unwind after our long day. The next morning we took a ride down the river to a cultural minority village near the park. We visited a cultural museum and then walked through the rice paddies. We had the chance to cut some rice in the paddies after some instruction from the locals. It was an amazing experience that I won't soon forget. Along the way, I made a new friend, a cow that I named Penny. Cows dotted the paddies chowing on the old dried rice plants and she took a liking to me when I paused pet her as we passed. We then visited the village, spent some time with the local kids, and met a couple who received some sort of award for being the oldest couple in Vietnam. The husband is 104 and his wife is a lowly 103, they are healthy and enjoying life in the village. Seeing the village was a great experience and something that not many people my age have been able to be a part of. We rode back to the park, had a quick bite of lunch, and then headed for Saigon. After three days in the jungle, we were all pretty worn out and ready for a nap. Once back in Saigon, we boarded the ship and prepared for departure the next morning. Vietnam as a whole was an amazing and eye-opening experience. Coming in not knowing what to expect, I was extremely pleased and cannot wait to return, hopefully in the near future, to further explore other areas that I wasn't able to see on this trip. I heard great things from others about Dalat, Halong Bay, and Hanoi. The Vietnamese are an interesting people to observe, and they have many unique cultural characteristics that I noticed during my stay. They have a serious affinity for hammocks, and they can be seen almost anywhere there is room enough for one. There are roadside motels for long range motorbike travelers which are simply open air buildings crammed with hammocks. When on (or off) duty in the national park, rangers typically lounged in hammocks rather than chairs. The Vietnamese are an easy-going people not afraid to take a break from their busy day to take a rest in a nearby hammock, or just spend some time with friends or family. Another fascinating thing about the Vietnamese is their strong sense of nationalism and unity within their country, which has only been united for 35 years. There is a strong sense of what is Vietnamese, and people take pride in their country as a whole. Vietnam, home of pho, 333 beer, hammocks, cheap DVDs, beautiful jungles, and a culturally rich past, has made its own place in my heart and is somewhere that everyone should visit at some point in their lives.