There were eight of us (four couples) and we’d visited Malaysia & Sri Lanka so where next. Because I was responsible for arranging the two previous holidays the question was aimed at me.
I was reading ‘Brighton Rock’ by Graham Green, so I thought why not Vietnam to see the Continental Hotel in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh), where Graham Green wrote much of his novel The Quiet American? I’d love to sit in the hotel for a drink.
Fortunately none of the group had been involved with the Vietnam War, so we didn’t have any hidden memories to consider.
This is the hotel where Graham Green stayed & wrote ‘The Quiet American’, published in 1955.
I researched various hotels in Saigon for a mixture of price, standard of accommodation, as we were too old for backpacker style hotel and not wealthy enough to disregard the cost. At the same time I contacted a number of local travel agency / companies in Vietnam for ideas and quotes for various tours. I found all of the companies that I contacted cheaper than dealing with an Australian travel company, but I did not have the buyer protection of dealing with an Australian company. Having already had dealings with travel agents in Malaysia and Sri Lanka I felt confident that I would be able to smell a con. In the end I decided to deal with a company called Aurora Travel, and the person who became my main contact was a lady called Van. She couldn’t do enough for me, answering all my e-mails promptly, suggesting places to see, comment on my suggestions, some were positive and some negative, but always kind and friendly.Between Van and my group, via yours truly, we finalised a tour and our hotels in Saigon (Ho Chi minh), Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay. The whole holiday was going to be two weeks from the 28th February, to arriving back in Sydney on the morning of the 15th March. Our time in Vietnam was going to be twelve days with two nights in Singapore on the way home.
After my research of the hotels I picked the Windsor Plaza Hotel in Saigon, which had a shopping arcade underneath.
Van asked if I realised that this hotel was not in the centre, but that the hotel did offer a free minibus service in to Saigon centre.
We were aware that the location was a little out of the town, but this didn’t bother us, as we knew of the free transport. The actual time to get from the hotel to the centre was about five to eight minutes (depending on traffic) and we didn’t consider it ‘out of town’ at all. The price of the Windsor Hotel fitted our budget, plus for $15 extra a night, we could have a room on the Executive Floor where they served food and cocktails from 5.00 pm to 7.00 pm. It was a ‘no brainer’ as we knew that wine was expensive in Vietnam and the Exec Floor served French wines. The best $15 purchase that I’d made for a long time. I think the club floor was a new idea for this hotel, because the range and amount of food was quite large. It was much more than cocktail nibbles, being a range of hot food from fried rice through to various meat dishes, all very tasty.
We did have one small problem; the bar staff kept the red wine in the fridge and the white wine on top of the fridge. It didn’t take long for us to get things changed.
Khao, (pronounce Quar) our guide for Saigon and surrounding area, met us at the airport. Khao is married to an English schoolteacher, and at that time he was about to become a father. He has since become the father of Rosie.
Khao’s command of English was very good, partly due to his father, who used to work for the Americans during the American War, and of course being married to Michelle, his English wife helped. Those of us in the West refer to the war between Vietnam and America as the Vietnam War, but in Vietnam it is called the American War.
The number of motorbikes is frightening, but after a while you get used to them and you are able to cross the road in safety even though the bikes are zipping past you at a rate of knots.
I used to keep an eye out for an old lady and I would follow her across the road. Age is revered in Asia and I knew that they wouldn’t hit an old lady – I was right. Eventually I ran out of old ladies and had to make the trip on my own.
We had four days in Saigon (Ho Chi minh). On the first day we had a tour of the city followed by a visit to the War Remnants Museum.
The place was full of US tanks, artillery, planes etc as well as N. Vietnamese equipment.
The museum also had a guillotine, which had last been used in the 20th century.
From this museum we moved on to the Reunification Palace. It didn’t register with me until we were inside the building and I looked out of the window and suddenly realised I was looking down on the spot where the N. Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates and brought the war to an end.
The tanks came up the road in front of the fountain and crashed through the gates.
This is a close up of one of the tanks as a museum piece.
The viewing of the Palace, and hearing of the history of Saigon under the French, South Vietnamese, Americans and eventually the Vietnamese was very interesting.
In the afternoon we visited the tunnels, which are just outside Saigon.
You can see how small the entrance to one of the tunnels is – the hand belong to our guide. Later we were shown tunnel opening, which have been enlarged to allow well-fed westerners to experience crawling along a tunnel.
This is the enlarged opening of a tunnel entrance, just for us westerners.
The next picture is the entrance of a tunnel where you can crawl for about 60 metres underground. I tried it but being rather large I become stuck in a tunnel and had to back crawl out. The tunnels have bends in them so you, as the crawler, blocks all form of light which comes from behind. I could not see anything in front of me so wasn’t sure where the tunnel went around a corner – another reason for me to get out. Some of our group did cover the whole underground course.
A shot of the tunnel, after climbing down the ladder from ground level.
Later we had the chance of firing an AK47 for $1 a shot – two of us ‘invested’ $10 for five shots each – last of the big spenders. We were aiming at targets about 75 meters away – I managed to hit the surrounding sandbags.
We were also shown various booby traps used during the war. The afternoon was very interesting, and brought to life how frightening the war was for both sides. Carpet-bombing to booby traps.
The following day we were picked up at 8.00 am and driven to the Mekong Delta.
This was going to be a full day. We crossed the Mekong in a small-motorised boat and once we reached the other side, we switched to a much smaller boat, paddled by one man, who guided us through muddy channels.
We visited a bee farm – the bees do not sting – just produce honey.
From here we moved on to a small factory that made coconut sweets, followed by local dancing and then on to lunch. I’m not a big fish eater (can’t stand the bones), but we were offered ‘Elephant ear’ fish.
Four fish for four couples – not much was left. We also had very large tiger prawns, spicy beef, fried rice and vegetables, so we couldn’t complain about going hungry. And beer was included, of course, because the weather was HOT!
Next stop would be Hoi An.