Mytho, Ben Tre, Phoenix Island

11 January

So, I’m still in Saigon. And I could be here a while; I want to explore the Mekong Delta and it seems to make sense to use this as a base and do short trips from here.

Yesterday I took a day trip to the towns of Mytho and Ben Tre and a place called Phoenix Island. I went on an organised tour with Sinh Café because the whole point of going to the delta (or one of the main reasons at least) is to check out the waterways. However, according to the guidebook, it’s not always easy to do this independently, as you can’t just pay a local person to take you out on a boat, you have to rent one from the government, and at $25 a pop that’s more than the cost of this entire tour.

Mytho was OK, if unremarkable. In Ben Tre we visited a “coconut candy factory”, which was little more than someone’s kitchen. The candy was bloody good, though, although whether that’s still the case after you’ve eaten 10,000 dongs’ worth of the stuff really is debateable. I was really impressed, though: they burn the husks from the coconuts to heat the water to make the toffee; that was pretty cool from a recycling point of view.

Phoenix Island was once the home of the ‘Coconut Monk’ (coconut does seem to be a bit of a theme in these parts!), who turned his pagoda into kind of theme park. It’s all going to seed now, but the saddest sight by far was the selection of unhappy-looking animals in small cages. I really don’t think people are deliberately cruel, it’s just that they’ve not realised yet that there are kinder ways to keep animals – if you have to keep them at all that is.

Lots of vegetation surrounds us on a boat ride in the Mekong Delta.

Boat ride in the Mekong Delta.

The best bit of the day was the boat trip from Ben Tre to Phoenix Island, along a waterway with massive palm trees forming a continuous arch over us. That made the whole feeling-like-a-complete tourist all worthwhile.

In Saigon I’ve been checking out the museums I missed last time I was here: the Ho Chi Minh City Museum the other day and the Ho Chi Minh Museum today. It’s really interesting how Ho Chi Minh is iconographised here: the museum has models of houses where he stayed (although possibly these have a significance I’m too thick to realise); some grainy pictures of the British Library and British Museum because they have some sort of connection with him, and lots of tat sculptures – not contemporaneous – of Ho Chi Minh at various times in his life.

Pic in HCMC Art Museum of guns poking out of a clump of trees at night during Vietnam War.

One of my favourite pictures in the HCMC Art Museum. Wish I knew who the artist is.

Highlights of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum? “The youths mind of South Vietnam was poisoned with pornographic literature, films and music,” under a photograph of people looking at indistinct pictures of something, and “These dolls were made by the unhappy children of d 7, please buy to help them”.

While loitering in coffee shops and the like, I’ve had some (more) random thoughts. Lipton Tea, which I have just drunk in Kem Bach Dang (an ice-cream shop. That’s another addition to my Vietnamese vocabulary – kem, ice-cream. Nothing useful like “help!” or “I think I’m having a brain haemorrhage, please find a doctor”.) Anyway, Lipton Tea. It’s available in virtually every place I’ve visited, often described as “English tea”. Even the label says “Lipton, London, England”. So why the bloody hell have I never seen it on sale at home?

And cutlery. From the humblest hostelry to the poshest restaurants, including the one at Palmira in Mui Ne, everywhere seems to have at least one item stamped “Vietnam Airlines”. Why?

Something interesting caught my eye in the Saigon Times [the English-language newspaper]: an article about a young man who runs a successful tile-making business. He set it up in 1994 with 3.7million VND he’d saved in three years of working, and he’s had sales of 520M VND in 1998, 970M in 1999 and 1.56Billion in 2000. Now bearing in mind that US$100 = 1.5M VND that is fairly thought provoking.

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