Saturday, 17 December 2011

Vietnam, Mekong Delta

Being the 10th longest river in the world, the Mekong river plays a significant role to over 320 million people. It flows through many countries, starting from the Tibetan Plateau to 3 provinces in China; then to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam; before finally settling into the South China Sea. Its name, mae-nam-khong has both Thai and Laos origin, which means Mother of Water.   

I was really excited to go to the Mekong Delta, partly to observe the lives of the people living along the river and the other half, simply to appreciate nature.  

This was one of the most interesting roadside coffee shop I have ever been to, somewhere near the Mekong Delta. While others in the group were buying drinks, we took the opportunity to rest for a few minutes in one of the many hammocks available. 

See how large the Mekong Delta is. The Mekong Delta covers the huge fertile flat plains of Southern Vietnam. The Delta people called the Mekong River, 'Cuu Long River', which means River of the nine dragons.

(from Viet Bamboo Travel website)

We travelled to My Tho by bus and reached the port of Cai be. 

From the quay, we took one of these motor boats. According to the guide, Cai Be Floating Market is a very busy place in the Mekong Delta. Every morning, 400 to 500 boats filled with fruits, vegetables and other products, lined the banks of the river to wait for customers.  Unfortunately, we reached Cai Be at noon so we missed all the actions. It was a bit of a let-down for me because I wanted to see this.

Not the best photo, but the scene in Cai Be looks like this in the afternoon. The people travel by their little sampan and all of them wear the "non-la", the leaf conical hat.

The guide told us that most of the young people at the Mekong Delta had moved to HCM to look for jobs. Life has not been very good for the Delta people because the building of dams at the Mekong River, by countries such as China and Laos had affected their livelihood.During the wet season, the dams released large volumes of water from their reservoirs and this create flash floods, which killed many crops. There were also fewer fishes in the river when the ecosystem was disrupted.

The river widens as water rises each year.


Houses, which were once built on land are now on water. Not shown here, farmers also lose parts of their agricultural land. When we see directly how our actions affect nature, it becomes an eye-opener.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Vietnam, Cu Chi Tunnel

Traveling from Tay Ninh Province after lunch, we traveled to Cu Chi to visit Ben Dinh Underground Tunnel complex. I had goosebumps when I visit this place. It's like going into a different world. The air around here is heavy with nationalistic pride, where the soldiers carry themselves with a 'hard-to-explain' poise. The fact that the complex has been deemed as a national revolutionary relic in Vietnam's Anti-American resistance was hard to go unnoticed.

The security was really tight though; we were given a sticker each, to paste on our shirts at the entrance. The guide told us that the tunnels in the complex stretches up to more than 200 km to the Saigon River, but some tunnels have collapsed. The people, who built these tunnels, were the Vietcong - Vietnamese Communist. The tunnels were dug since 1948, when the Vietcong were fighting the French for independence. Later on, it was used to fight the Americans, who came to stop the South from falling into the hands of the Communists in the North.

Image taken from

This is how the complex looks like; it consists of a network of tunnels and common areas. I wonder how people could live in these conditions. Is there enough ventilation and what if it rains? Wouldn't the ground be flooded with water?

We were brought to the "meeting room", which was a semi-underground hut, to watch a documentary.

It was quite dark in there. We sat at the back and I wasn't really listening to the documentary. I was more interested in the real structure itself. There were 4 tunnels found in the meeting room. Based on our itinerary, we will be able to experience crawling into one of the tunnels in the complex. So I was thinking maybe it was one of these tunnels.

This one was found directly behind where I was seated. The tunnel was pretty narrow and already I had some thoughts like what if I got stuck in the middle and could not come out. I was having all these wild thoughts in my head, it turned out that we were not going into any of these 4 tunnels.

This site was our first station. Apparently, the small underground pockets were commonly used to launch a surprise attack. For example, a Vietcong soldier sneaked an attack from behind the "enemies" and then quickly disappeared through the pocket. When the "enemies" turned their back, no Vietcong were in sight except the forest crickets laughing at them.

Is the guerilla form of fighting cowardice or brilliance? Take your pick.

There were many exhibits in this forest museum.

Vietcongs resting at the camp. They could be identified by the "Burberry" scarves worn around the neck.

These were some of the traps installed for any unsuspecting "enemies". 

Ant nests were placed in this pit and then covered with leaves.


The life firing range at Cu Chi, where we could fire some shots at some targets, with the guns used in the war.

This caught me by surprise. The exhibit here is fishing in the well. I really do not know any fishes living underground. Don't all fish live in water in the sea, pond, lake or river? There's one fish, which I know lives in the mud... Mudfish ...

Yes, I'm really ignorant about fishes. The fishes I help my mum cook comes from the market.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Vietnam, Cao Dai Temple

30 Nov 2011

We followed a full day tour with Tuan Travel to the Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnel. The tour guide was a chatty and good looking guy.
The bus picked us up from our hotel that morning and we assembled with other tourists, who were also following the same tour.
Our first destination is Cao Dai Temple, which is located in Tay Ninh province.

The journey was quite far; it took about 2 hrs. In between, we made a stop at the ceramic factory for toilet break.

These were some of the art works sold at the Ceramic factory. It's hard to believe that these masterpieces were created by handicapped workers, who were disfigured by Agent Orange, a biological warfare used in Vietnam War. 

I was amazed by the woman artist, who used egg shells for her paintings. She is really talented. I admire these workers for their tenacity and hard work.

We set off to Cao Dai Temple...

...and reached the temple around 12 noon, which was just in time for the prayer service.
This place is massive, surrounded by many gates and large courtyards that stretched beyond the Temple.

Cao Dai literally means high tower or the state of being supreme above the rest. Caodaism was founded in the 1920s in Vietnam. Today, there are around 2 to 6 million followers, making it the 3rd largest religion in the country. At one point, Caodaist religious leaders harbored the idea of instituting Caodaism as the Vietnamese state religion.

A Cao Dai worshipper wearing white robe on his way to the temple. The Caodaists pray 4 times a day - 6 am, noon, 6 pm & midnight.   

Initially, I thought he was a Muslim from his clothes and turban, but I was wrong. We had to take off our footwear to enter the temple. The temple structure look like a church with its 2 towers from the front view, but from the side, the typical curved roofs bear the mark of a Buddhist temple. 

I found it strange because it seems that the architect got mixed up with the designs. Confusing too because this religion seemed to be a fusion of all the major religions in the world.


Walking gingerly into the huge hall, I noticed the huge dragon carvings encircling each pillar. One could see Chinese influences here because according to the Chinese beliefs, dragons are highly regarded as protectors of the house of God.

aidai/caodai4.htmlI also noted that everything was constructed with grandiose in mind; even the carvings and drawings were intricately elaborate. 

Here, praying ceremony was about to start. Worshippers stood in rows and took their cues when the bell rang. We were welcomed to view the ceremony from the gallery as long as we did not do anything to disrupt it.

When the bell rung,the bishops, who wore colored robes, led the ceremony. The different colored robes symbolize their ranks and their spiritual allegiance. According to the tour guide, yellow symbolizes Buddhism, blue - Taoism, and red - Confucianism. 

The normal followers were robed in white. The female worshippers on the left, also followed certain ranks. Those with ranks covered their heads with white scarves.

Seemed like there were more females than males, who attended the prayer ceremony... and they were quite old. Most of the young worshippers must be working. 

The ceremony was accompanied by music and a choir.


Young women participated in the ceremony by chanting and young men played the musical instruments. Near the hall, there was a plaque, which stated 3 people, who were venerated as saints - Sun Yat Sen (Chinese revolutionary leader), Victor Hugo (French poet) and Nguyen Binh Khiem (Vietnamese poet). I am not sure why these 3 people were the chosen ones. 

I wanted to know who or what were the Cao Dai worshippers praying to, and then I saw it.

Cao Dai worshippers pray to the Divine Left Eye at the altar, whom/which they consider their God. According to the Caodaist, that Eye had a vision of the All-Seeing eyes and it was said that all religions will one day eventually return to the Left Eye, and each one of them will acknowledge the Eye as the only one true god.

Further reading:

Continue the next post with my visit to Cu Chi Tunnel.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City

29 Nov 2011

My Vietnam trip with Cp was free and easy, and planned 6 months ahead. We were at the Changi Airport in the wee hours of the morning because we had to check in at 5am. The flight to Tan Son Nhat International Airport at Ho Chi Minh (HCM) would take us approximately 2 hrs.

Time: 5.00 am
I went through the main attractions in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam again because there was nothing much we could do while waiting for departure. Somehow, I felt like it was also important to get acquainted with the national flag of Vietnam. What i noticed first from the flag is the colours. Red and yellow form a really strange contrast. The colours are very "loud" and "glaring", it is sure to catch anybody's attention.

The other flag, with the hammer and sickle, represents the ruling party in Vietnam. I find out that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there are only 5 Communist countries left in the world today; namely China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea & Vietnam.

Historically, I must admit that I do not know much about Vietnam or the war it fought against the Americans. I was surprised that the war went on for 20 long YEARS. Here's the map of Vietnam.

Map of Vietnam (Lonely Planet)

We arrived at 8.40 am (SG time) in HCM City. We took quite awhile to find our way to the 'right' taxi stand. Well, not exactly a taxi stand, it was some sort of a booth located at the domestic terminal. We were looking out for the Vinasun logo and men with green shirts. 

According to travellers' reviews on TripAdvisor, there are only 2 trusted taxi companies in Vietnam - Vinasun and Mai Linh, so I'm taking those reviews in earnest.

I've also created my own personal reviews based on this trip.

To those intending to go to Vietnam,

1. Make sure that the taxi taken bear the exact logo of Vinasun and Mai Linh; there are various forms of scams who claimed to be from the companies. One driver offered to drive us to our hotel for USD25 and we immediately walked away.

2. Never take any motorbike ride to tour around the city. I had taken motorbike 'taxi' in Bangkok without any problems; but the Vietnamese riders were different. They would extort money from foreigners so ignore these riders when they approach.

3. Never sample food offered by "friendly" hawkers along the pedestrian walkways. Chances are, you would be intimidated to buy what they sell. One hawker suddenly turn nice to ugly in a split second when we decided not to buy whatever she was selling. We had to pay for the food which we had sampled, together with the food that she shove upon us.

4. Make sure you ask the price first before touching anything. This elderly hawker sold us a coconut drink 3 times its normal price. Initially my intention was to buy a coconut from her to lighten her load, but being kind sometimes doesn't pay off.

There were many street hawkers along the pavement. Some were honest, some were not. It took experience to bargain. I would say that we became desensitized with the 'fierce' locals after 2 days in Vietnam although language is still the barrier of communication.

Apart from the bad experiences, there were many nice ones too such as the service we received from this hotel.

Situated at Dong Du Street next to Annam Spa, it is very popular with Japanese travelers and workers as there is a small Japanese restaurant on the ground floor.

The hotel was within my budget and in a safe location. Surrounded by all the 4 stars (Sheraton, Caravelle, Intercontinental, Grand and Hyatt), the location is good because there are many international restaurants found along the streets, especially halal eateries for Muslims.

The hotel could also help to arrange a full day trip to the Mekong Delta, Cu Chi Tunnel or Cao Dai Temple. I was relieved from the hassles of finding a reliable travel agency so that was a plus.

These were some of the places near the hotel, which we went to on our first day in HCM.

The photo above is Saigon Central Mosque at Dong Du Street. It was built by South Indian Muslims in 1935. It's a bit hard to find at first, because my attention was directed at all the high rise buildings. The mosque gave an image of a safe haven to me, as compared to the traffic outside its gate. Traffic was chaotic!!

Saigon Opera House

Not sure how many times we passed this place. It is located at the roundabout junction, in front of the Caravelle Hotel. Somehow, we did not enter the building. 

Ho Chi Minh's statue in front of the People's Committee, formerly known as City Hall.

We saw many buildings built by the French during their colonization in Indochina. It was said that the architecture of this building was modeled by a similar building in Paris; the French wanted to feel at home while in Saigon.

Saigon Notre-dame Cathedral

This Roman Catholic church was built between 1863 and 1880. All the building materials were imported including the red bricks, which were from Marseille. There is a statue of Virgin Mary in front of the church and at one point someone reported that the statue had shed tears. As absurd as it sounded, it succeeded in attracting large crowds until security officers had to be deployed for crowd control.

Saigon Central Post Office

The building was designed by the same architect, who designed the Eiffel Tower!!

I noticed that in most French architecture, there is always a clock on the building. Does it has to do with the fact that the French are extremely time conscious or is it just decorative art, popularized in those period?

Other Nearby shopping centres near the hotel.

  • Diamond Plaza: the blue building behind Notre Dame.
  • Vincom Center: It feels like I am back in Singapore because what I can get in Singapore, I can get in here.
  • Parkson Saigon Tourist Plaza

The Tao Dan Park in front of The Reunification Palace

Just like its name indicated, the Reunification Palace was the site, where the Vietnam War ended. After the Northern Vietnamese army crashed its gate. the Communist government united the Southern Vietnam to form the present day Vietnam. Saigon, which was a name given by the French and American, was changed to HCM to mark the takeover of the city by the Communist government.

From the Reunification Palace, we then walked to the Cho Ben Tanh Market to see if there were anything interesting to buy. All these done in a day!