The distance between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is 291km and with the border between Cambodia and Vietnam being roughly in the middle it is an easy journey to make overland. We left Phnom Penh at 8:00am and arrived in HCMC 6 hours later. The ease at which you are able to move around SE Asia is still something that feels weird for us.
HCMC, formally known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam. Following the 1954 Geneva Agreement, which split the country in two, Saigon became the the capital of the southern “State of Vietnam”. In 1975 the city came under the control of the communist Vietnamese People’s Army, who had fought against the American backed State of Vietnam for the unification of the Vietnam. Upon take over the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the victorious communist leader.
The atrocities of the US in the war are well documented in the War Remnants Museum. One of the most powerful exhibits is the heartbreaking photographs which document the consequence of Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide which was used to defoliate rural areas in order to deprive the Viet Cong guerrillas of food, water and shelter. The effects of Agent Orange are still apparent today where areas of contaminated soil and sediment have resulted in high quantities of the dioxin in the food chain. This has resulted in a disproportionate number of children born with genetic diseases, serious skin diseases and certain cancers.
The museum has the potential to be an excellent resource on the Vietnam war but currently lacks a balance of information. According to the museum the only barbaric acts were those committed by the US Army.
As well as the War Remnants Museum we spent a day visiting the Cao Dai Great Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels; the former a Vietnamese religious landmark and the latter a 200km tunnel network of the Viet Cong. The Cao Dai religion was founded in Southern Vietnam in 1926 and is a mix of Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism and Islam. The Great Temple is the religions headquarters and during our visit we were able to observe midday prayer.
This was quite a contrast of sights, and we didn’t realise in advance that including the Cao Dai temple would require an extra 3 hours of driving – something we wouldn’t rush to do again.
People say that when you travel you “find yourself”, well we have “found” that we are huge foodies; a lot of our favourite travel experiences to date have been trying the local food and HCMC was no exception. Everywhere you go there are coffee shops offering hits of potent Vietnamese coffee and street sellers ready and waiting to make you a “bánh mì”, a baguette filled with pork, coriander, cucumber and carrot. Another option is “pho” a noodle soup topped with a choice of beef, chicken or offal, luckily the choice is usually yours!
From HCMC we started our journey north to Dalat; located 1,500m above sea level in the central highlands, it offers a spring like climate all year round. Described locally as the “city of eternal spring” it is a popular destination with both Vietnamese and international tourists. Surrounded by lakes, waterfalls and pine forests, and with an abundance of bakeries, it doesn’t feel too dissimilar to a French Alpine town.
There are lots of tourist agencies which offer trips to the nearby waterfalls, however we decided that a DIY tour wouldn’t be too difficult. Choosing where to go wasn’t tricky either; despite there being many waterfalls around the area, only one is equipped with its own rollercoaster! Armed with “Datanla Falls” written on a piece of paper we hopped on board a local bus and with the assistance of an extremely helpful conductor we made the return journey successfully. The highlight of the trip was definitely the rollercoaster – so much fun that we splashed out and did it twice.
To complete our DIY tour we took a walk around the locally named “crazy house”. A fitting description for the the Alice in Wonderland styled architecture where you find yourself walking up and down narrow spiralling staircases which crisscross inside and outside the buildings.
As mentioned we love to try the local food and alongside the usual Vietnamese cuisine Dalat offered something a bit different. On a regular street corner, when the nearby shops have closed for the evening, a pop up patisserie appears. This offers a eclectic selection of sweet and savoury pastry products, with huge vats of hot soya milk which are served with your choice of condensed milk or sugar. As someone who is supposed to avoid dairy products, this discovery was most welcome, and despite returning on several occasions we failed to spend more than £1 in one go.
We have now left Dalat and arrived in Da Nang where in a couple of hours we will meet up with Luke’s brother Andrew, who is flying in from the UK for 4 days! We are both really looking forward to seeing him and spending a packed few days around Da Nang, Hoi An and Hué.