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Date: Thu, 25 Nov 2004
Subject: Another unsolicited bulk email

Hello from Saigon this time

Our three day Mekong Delta tour from Phnom Penh to Saigon - sorry, Ho Chi Minh City (hereinafter referred to as HCMC) turned out not to be as commercial and grocklish as we'd anticipted, although it was pretty exhausting. It was also amazing value for money: we paid US$35 each for the three days, which included all the travel and accommodation and several meals. Ridiculous, really. Of that, $5 was an extra for a 'homestay', spending the second night in a Vietnamese family's house. Not that it was quite as personal as that may sound because there were ten of us guests, but it was a great evening. We did, however, arrive on our own at mid-day, so we had the host to ourselves for lunch and an afternoon walk through the village, with detailed lessons about all the amazing variety of fruit that grows here - like the Eden Project only better.

We're out of order here, but we spent the first night of the tour in a charming guest house halfway up Sam Mountain, the only thing remotely resembling a hill for a very long way in any direction. We walked to the top to watch the sun set over Cambodia (it's very close to the border). Beautiful.

Other impressions of the Delta tour: lots of floating communities, which seem to be more common in this part of the world than we realised, but definitely more up-market than in Cambodia. In a way this makes them less picturesque because a lot of the floating buildings are of corrugated iron where they might have been bamboo constructions in Cambodia, but they definitely looked more solid.

We were taken through a couple of floating markets, which weren't quite what we expected. Rather than being a solid mass of boats, where you walk across from one boat to the next - which we'd both envisaged - it was all quite open, with boats moving about, offering their wares to other boats. To show what they have on offer, they each have a tall bamboo post sticking up with samples of merchandise tied to it. There might be an aubergine, a pomelo (a sort of huge green grapefruit, carrots, even a baguette, and so on.

On some of the more minor waterways (which may or may not be artificial canals) there are 'monkey bridges'. These are apparently being phased out by the government as being too dangerous, to be replaced by small concrete bridges. This is hardly surprising, as all they consist of is a few poles. You walk across one pole while hanging onto another, higher up and offset horizontally, to act as a handrail. But rather them than us, on the whole.

Another general impression is the sheer size of the Mekong Delta. It's truly a vast area. The tour was by no means all by boat - that would have been far too slow. It included journeys of two hours and more by bus and we still only covered a relatively small portion of it. For those with atlases to hand, the major places we visited were Can Tho (the capital of the delta) and My Tho, and you might just find Vinh Long on there. It's all full of people too.

And in case there's been any news there about a typhoon hitting southern Vietnam, fear not: we were nowhere near it, but it was evidently quite serious and is now making its way to Thailand.

We finally made it to central HCMC last night, completely knackered, not only because the tour was generally exhausting, but because it was also quite stressful. These tours are a major feat of organisation, because there are two-, three- and four-day versions, with and without the homestay option, and they all go every day. As a consequence, we were constantly being shuffled around between different boats, buses and guides, never quite sure we were in the correct batch - and this with all our luggage, which we were reluctant to leave in the hands of someone we'd never seen before. It did all work in the end though.

The general impression of Saigon is much more favourable than we anticipated. Of course, it's a huge city, and growing rapidly (about the same size as London now, but not for long), and it's hectic and noisy. But it's nowhere near as intimidating or aggressive as we thought it might be - everyone's been very friendly indeed - and we've had an excellent guided tour of the main sights today: the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum (nearly as depressing as Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, but full of fantastic photographs of horrific events), an old Pagoda, an old Temple, the inevitable market - all with a superb guide.

Despite the favourable picture here, we're moving straight on tomorrow because we're starting to run out of days for all the things we want to do! So early tomorrow we head up into them thar hills, to Dalat, which is supposed to be much more peaceful and very beautiful.

on to Hanoi...

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