I spent several years of my childhood in Jacksonville, Florida, and grew up for the most part in League City, Texas, roughly at the midway point on I-45 between Houston and Galveston. You can believe me, then, when I say that I know from hot and humid. Even so, Vietnam is a smack in the face. Stepping out of a well-chilled airport for the first time, I can only describe the sensation as being akin to what I'd imagine the Green Bay Packers' locker room feels like after the entire team has taken a post-game shower after overtime.
That's just the first thing you have to get used to when visiting Ho Chi Minh City. It doesn't actually take very long. What takes a bit longer is growing accustomed to the traffic. Based on an eyeball estimate, I'd venture to guess that some 80 percent of the population gets around on a two-wheeled vehicle of some sort -- mostly motorized, with a scattering of bicycles.
Crossing any street, you have the sensation of being a very large, ponderous fish surrounded by schools of fleet minnows darting this way and that. There are few conventional traffic signals, and those are largely ignored by the teeming masses of motorized commuters. You're not even entirely safe on the sidewalk, used by more than a few bikers as a convenient shortcut. Between 5 and 6pm, crossing some streets seems literally impossible, which is why we didn't visit the imposing Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of town.
Instead, we headed up to the fourth floor of the Diamond department store, a massive temple to high-end consumerism, and joined the local kids in the quaint native custom we found there:
I should explain at this point that I won't be going into great detail regarding my time in Ho Chi Minh City. Some of the activities in which we engaged were official Semester at Sea functions, and thus it's only right that I allow my wife, currently serving as a faculty member on that voyage, to describe the bulk of our experiences in her own time and manner.
Instead, most of what follows is an idiosyncratic photo journal of my own impressions -- all of the images are mine, except as noted. (Once we reach Thailand I'll take over, since that leg of the trip was almost entirely of my own devising.)
After spending our first day in Ho Chi Minh City getting our legs under us and our wits about us, we set out on a trip through My Tho to Can Tho for an overnight excursion up the Mekong River. We made a brief "happy stop" (our guide's term for a bathroom break) at a tourist-oriented facility, where I spotted a large display of Vietnam's legendary snake wine: bottles filled with a reportedly vile 100 proof concoction of alcohol, in which was suspended the intact carcasses of serpents, scorpions, birds and what not in positions of martial conflict.
I took a moment to jot down the text printed on those tags:
Indications: Treatment of Rheumarism, Lumbago, Triebness & Scistia pain, Impotence, Improper erechtness, premature ejaculation at night, Debility of iumbus and kness, Dizziness & tenilus, Premature senile, Waekening mantality.
Covers just about everything, I'd say. (Our guide noted that this potion is consumed exclusively by men.) A while later, we finally reached the mighty Mekong, where we embarked on our journey upriver.
Of course, life on the river isn't all work.
Our first stop was a small commercial encampment along the shore, where delicious, chewy coconut candy, rice paper and popped rice were being made for export (and, of course, immediate consumption).
Virtually all of the boats we encountered on the Mekong had the same pattern painted on their bows: the color red for good luck, the eyes originally intended to scare away the crocodiles that no longer inhabit the river.
A bit later, we stopped at a handsome working farm and orchard for lunch.
As we journeyed onward with mudskippers frantically scooting out of our path, the Mekong became quite shallow. At one point, we were temporarily stuck in the silt. Our pilot requested more weight on the bow to clear the motor and rudder at the stern, and thus it was that I came to play a vital role in our voyage. (Photograph by Dr. LP.)
After our first trek, we took a ferry across the river to Can Tho, where we spent the night. The traffic was ferocious, so we left the bus behind and got to the hotel via xe loi, a motorized tricycle that slipped this way and that through the teeming two-wheel traffic.
We spent the night in the Sai Gon Can Tho, an attractive, modern hotel whose conveniences included the local equivalent of Muzak on demand. After dinner, we wandered around a bit. The now-familiar figure of Ho Chi Minh dominated the riverside landscape.
We also hit a CD store, where we snatched up an imposing pile of discs that eventually remained on the ship with Dr. LP. The next morning, we arose at dawn for a visit to the fabled CaiRang floating market, where boats were equipped with slender masts that advertised their wares: fruits, vegetables, seafood, whatever.
One savvy local entrepreneur, no doubt accustomed to touring boats filled with Westerners, clearly understood that all it took to evoke a ferocious thirst for carbonated beverages and bottled water was a charming little boy who knew how to alternate doleful eyes and a brilliant smile. She floated right up alongside our vessel, catering to our needs.
Throughout the voyage, it was clear that inhabitants of the region live in close symbiosis with the river; still, even in the humblest abodes, TV antennas proved that the locals were hardly out of touch with the larger world beyond the shore.
On our return to Can Tho, we prowled around a bit more, discovering in the process that fabulous Buddhist altars are hardly limited to Ho Chi Minh City.
To be continued.
Radiohead - In Rainbows (W.A.S.T.E. download)
Album - Album vs. Monterrey CD 1 (Del Hotel download)
Peteris Vasks - Pater Noster; Dona Nobis Pacem; Missa - Latvian Radio Choir, Sinfonietta Riga/Sigvards Klava (Ondine)
Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians - Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble (Innova)
Philip Glass - Monsters of Grace - Marie Mascari, Alexandra Montano, Gregory Purnhagen, Peter Stewart, Philip Glass Ensemble (Orange Mountain Music)
Hector Berlioz - Nuits d'été; Maurice Ravel - Shéhérazade; Cinq mélodies populaires Grecques - Bernarda Fink, Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi)
Nightwish - Dark Passion Play (Roadrunner)
Samamidon - All Is Well (Bedroom Community)