Travel time…Vietnam

I arrived in Bangkok a little fatigued. A week was spent resting, visiting chinatown and chatachuk market, celebrating the king’s birthday, sorting out visas, acquiring a sore throat, resting some more, losing a sore throat and having the washing done from the lady across the street. The heat saps the life from your bones and leaves you dry.

Making my way to Phonm Phenm I revisited my favourite 3A bakery and the sugar cane juice vendor. Evenings were occupied walking along the promenade that looks out onto the Mekong River, watching people commit to outdoor aerobics, badminton, football and family gatherings. I had the hairdresser clip back the curls of hair, leaving a thin, rounded finish.

Destination Saigon

Destination Saigon

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City just after lunch time, I found a place to stay and rested up. The view from the balcony saw people milling, motorcycles beeping. Good Afternoon, Vietnam.

10 Responses to “Travel time…Vietnam”

  1. Nadeem Says:

    The traffic. The constant hum of motorcycles. They swarm to the lights, eating up the road. Entire families, young children cradled at the front, adults at the wheel, mothers and siblings wrapping themselves around the driver. The lights turn green and it comes at you from all directions, cyclists climb the curb for an advantage, slipping through gaps. Organised chaos at its best. I found a crossroads and tried to make a little sense of it. Failing, I just watched, waved, smiled and grinned at the sheer joy of it.

    HCMC Motorbikes

    Motorcycle Diary, Ho Chi Minh City

    VideoVideo: Crosstown Traffic, Ho Chi Minh City

    I walked through Reunification Palace and paid a visit to the War Remnants Museum to catalogue a little of Vietnam’s past. I remember thinking that in many ways generations of Vietnamese probably confront their young history everyday. (Vietnam gained independence in 1945). The stories relayed at the museum are vivid and cut deep. Despite the suffering, Ho Chi Minh City is a sign of a brighter, prosperous future. I sense the people here are resilient, confident, assertive, not dwelling on yesteryear. The focus is very much on the present.

    I’ve found a wonderful bakery for tea and marble cake. I sat, ate and watched Vietnam take on Malaysia in the Asia Cup.

  2. Nadeem Says:

    A local bus took me to Mien Tay and I enquired about transport to the Mekong Delta. “Every 30 minutes, 80,000 dong”. People skittle on and off as the conductor hoots his way back into town. Uncle Ho is everywhere. Most strikingly, his presence envelops the hallway of the central post office. Below, people go about their daily chores, no doubt thankful for the reprieve the rotary fans give them from the unrelenting, still heat.

    Uncle Ho Chi Minh

    Uncle Ho Chi Minh

    “Hey Mister, where you go now?”. I pointed to the bookstore. The taxi driver smiled and nodded, knowingly.

  3. Nadeem Says:

    The Mekong Delta is a string of river alleys that crawl their way around the southern part of Vietnam. Rich in rice farming, small towns and villages are sprinkled across the region, making for a sedate contrast to the financial hub that is Ho Chi Minh.

    I based myself in Can Tho, a town seated on the banks of the Mekong, and ambled. Following the rivers neckline I came to Cai Rang, a market village 6km from Can Tho. Passing by, the endless array of shops, street sellers, motorcycle traffic and pedal cyclists. Wide open boulevards led the way.

    River Life, Can Tho

    River Life, Can Tho

    I stopped and asked if I could get a view of the river market and the shop owner duly obliged. “Yes sir, please do.” I entered the shop, avoided the barking dog, slid open the railing and peered out onto the Mekong. Floating marketeers pushed their long boats against each other in a sellers ensemble, vending produce; goods being thrown onshore, all for the daily sell. “What is the nature of your business?” I asked. “My family and I are tiling merchants sir.” I thanked the shop owner, his family and ventured further upstream.

    I tried to communicate with the lady in the cafe, a life’s journey glowing from her demeanour, but had to resign myself to sitting with her in silence as I sipped on my tea. I made my way back into Can Tho and submerged myself amongst the locals in busy shopping malls and markets. The people are warm, curious, helpful, laidback, welcoming. It puts you at ease.

    Mekong Delta, Cai Rang

    Mekong Delta, Cai Rang

    Vietnam couldn’t gain victory in the second leg against Malaysia, and found themselves eliminated from the Asia Cup.

  4. Nadeem Says:

    Returning to Ho Chi Minh, I became mildly addicted with the local buses that darted around the city, never really stopping, just slowing a little as passengers jumped on in sync. The conductor lent a helping hand, and the bus staggered on. I took a trip to the northern terminal and enquired about journeys to the central highlands. Satisfied, I ventured on to Cholon, Chinatown.

    The narrow streets unfurl a procession of small shops, an open air wedding, buddhist temples, incense sticks kerbed in cracks in the street, sellers of every manner, mechanics, heads peering over balconies. I am enjoying this far too much, melting into every little expose I stumble across. Compelled.

    Cholon, Chinatown, Ho Chi Minh City

    Cholon, Chinatown, Ho Chi Minh City

    The people are wonderfully expressive. I am not sure they are aware of it. Old, young, traditional, contemporary. The expression comes from a kind of understated, almost neglectful innocence. I've sat and watched families in restaurants, people in cafes, crowds in parks. There's a togetherness there, a subliminal cultural bond of sorts. I'm not sure – I can't quite put my finger on it.

    I need a little scooter. I think thats what it is. Or perhaps someone can teach me how to play Xiangqi.

  5. Nadeem Says:

    I should have bought the little digital watch. It had a black plastic strap and everything. Tawdry in all its glory. I spent Christmas in Dalat, a hill station nestled in the central highlands, 6 hours north of Ho Chi Minh City, immersed in a vista of evergreen forest, hills and jungle.

    The moment passed and I resigned myself to cups of tea at the local cafe, listening to Vietnamese versions of Jingle Bells and I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. After a few days I began to get on well with the cafe owner, using translation software on my computer to converse. It worked a treat.

    Dalat, Central Highlands

    Dalat, Central Highlands

    Yes, she explained, people are hungry to learn and develop, its always been that way. Many work from sunrise to sunset and think nothing of it. The price people pay for survival. For the young especially, education is at the heart of everything. I nodded.

  6. Nadeem Says:

    I shied away from the heart of Hoi An, a wonderfully preserved french colonial river town and took to the small villages that circled it, where fishermen made their livelihood. Despite the overcast weather, I hired a bicycle and peddled to the coastline, stopping at the port in Cua Dai. Rice fields lined the route, people crouched in water, working the land.

    Hoi An and its surroundings

    Hoi An and its surroundings

    Fishing boats came in to dock and have paperwork approved, before sailing out to sea for the daily catch. Rotated nets decorated the seascape. I parked up, found a place to sit and watched the boats chugging to work. Bliss.

    VideoVideo: Fishermen at Cua Dai

    Once you engage with people it sort of sets them (and you) free. “You remembered my bicycles!” “Yes, the bikes perfect. It has a little basket and everything” “You want it tomorrow also?” I grinned; she smiled.

  7. Nadeem Says:

    I arrived in Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam, for a few days.

    I found myself cycling around the mazed backstreets of the citadel. Busy city roads branch off into small lanes, with villagers snoozing in hammocks, people working in paddy fields, tending to their crops. I noticed that in the late afternoon, the villages would empty as sellers made their way into the urban heart, preparing to sell; be it food, flowers or ornaments. Hue has an enigmatic, mystical feel to it, set against the jovial nature of it’s people.

    The imperial city, Hue

    The imperial city, Hue

    Motorcycle riders are the most entertaining of all. “Motorcycle?” “Khong Khamma” “Where you from? Look, I have many friends from London!” A small notebook flips open with every Jack and Jill you can imagine, from every place on the planet. “I am from London, England, this London is in Canada…” “Ok, yes, I see you tomorrow Mr. London. If you need a motorcycle I am here”. Undertoned with compassion, always smiling.

  8. Nadeem Says:

    What is it about train journey’s that evokes such a sense of freedom. The journey to Vinh was unscheduled, but a blessing. The train choo-chooed into Hue station, eager passengers ran across railings and scrambled on. I took my hard seat and sat amongst Vietnamese on their way (mostly) to Hanoi.

    Train from Hue to Vinh

    Train from Hue to Vinh

    It was like An Audience with… Nadeem Butt. A few hours in, as some stepped off, coach 8 opened up a little and people began to relax, sitting and laying across, over, and under seats. Catching a little sleep on such a long journey. Children ran over. “Hello!” I passed my notebook along. “Happy New Year” wrote one passenger! I waved my thanks. Others came over and chatted to me in Vietnamese – I did not have a clue. Students appeared and sat, eagerly practicing their english. Abandonment and all its glitter.

    VideoVideo: Train stop, Hue to Vinh

  9. Nadeem Says:

    I think it would be fair to say that I am in free fall. Light headed, captivated, an unchained melody. Trapped in the moment and not looking for a way out. Tam Coc, draped in cragged landscape, river alleys and pagodas left me marooned in another reality. I could peddle my two wheeler for eternity. I passed through the scenery in a daze.

    Around Tam Coc

    Around Tam Coc

    In many ways neighbouring Ninh Binh is Tam Coc’s antithesis – urban life at its most raw, gritty and earthed, yet full of the spirit that I have become accustomed to during my time in Vietnam. I crossed the footbridge, descended into the market area, found a small bakery and people watched. It is the people. Infectious. Haloed. Humbling.

    Around Ninh Binh

    Around Ninh Binh

  10. Nadeem Says:

    “…If I were a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway…save my love for loneliness, save my love for sorrow, I’ve given you my onliness, give me your tomorrow…”
    (If I were a Carpenter, Tim Hardin 2, Tim Hardin, 1967)

    Hanoi. The blessed fusion of just about everything. An endless tapestry of confined streets weaved their way around the old quarter. Pulsating with vibrancy, energy and colour. I wrapped myself in the mosaic that is city life. Visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, Hoan Kiem Lake, the old railway station and tying up loose ends saw my time evaporate.

    Old Quarter, Hanoi

    Old Quarter, Hanoi

    Its perhaps appropriate that I chanced upon a local theatre. “Come Saturday please.” “Great, many thanks.” A village based love story acted out to all generations of Vietnamese in the crowd. The audience whispered, chorused laughter and clapped. I smiled all the way through.

    VideoVideo: Night at the theatre, Hanoi

    The curtain fell and with it, my time in Vietnam drew to a close. I am missing it already, and I haven’t yet left. Vietnam, all over.

    For travel time in Malaysia, click here.
    For travel time in Jordan, click here.
    For travel time in Syria, click here.
    For travel time in Turkey, click here.
    For travel time in Laos, click here.
    For travel time in Cambodia, click here.
    For travel time in Thailand, click here.
    For travel time in Myanmar, click here.
    To go to the start of this blog, click here.
    To go to, click here.

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