Ben Tre and Ho Chi Minh – 6 days – 3 metres above the sea level

Version française disponible ici.

After 1-hour flight from Dan Hang, the captain announced our arrival in Ho Chi Minh and the preparation of our landing. As soon the wheels of our little plane touched the ground, we jumped in a cab. We went straight away to the bus station at the West of the city. In the old building of the terminal, we looked for the correct desk to find tickets for our next destination. On the window of each desk, there were A4-sheets with the name of the cities of the different companies. Behind their little desks, it was hard to find someone speaking English. After saying the name Ben Tre, our future step, many vendors waved at us saying loudly “Ben Tre! Ben Tre! Ben Tre!”. We took the first bus ready to go.

After two hours of journey and 85 kilometres, we found a youth hostel at the outside of the city, lost in the middle of the jungle and nearby a small river flowing from the Mekong. Upon our arrival, the receptionist told us there was no floating market nearby. Visiting this floating market was the reason number one of our venue in this area.

But Ben Tre had many other treasures to show. Capital of the province of the same name, the city is located on the Delta of the Mekong. This province is composed of three main islands located between the rivers of Tien Giang, Co Chien and Ham Luong which are all of them going to the Mekong river being divided in several arms before to flow into the China Sea. The life of its inhabitants is around these constraints due this wide river and the important network of canals. The province of Ban Tre is considered like the “realm of coconut trees”. The coconut is taking a main place in the economics development of the city. 

We shared, at the end of the day, the first “Saigon” beer with a French young woman crossing the South-East part of Asia by bike. Then, we looked for dining. Around the hostel, the streets were very quiet. We went towards the town-centre. After walking two kilometres separating us from the first houses. We enjoyed a noodle soup in a canteen where families were meeting for the end of the day.

The following day, we went on the Mekong with a Samon, a long and narrow traditional boat with an engine. We started a cruise on the delta with the theme of discovering the economics of coconuts. The boats were colorful with eyes drawn on the front. I looked online and the ethnologist, Laura Bogani, was explaining: “In Vietnam and still today, boats were considered having a soul. After the caulking, the sailors draw round eyes or eyes with an almond shape, at the front of the boats meaning this spirituality.”

Thanks to this protection, we crossed without troubles one of the three main arms of the delta before to stop on a little island.

We saw on the main stream impressive and old wooden boats. Their holds were full of coconuts, up to the rails. They were taking care of the transport of these coconuts to the companies located alongside the river. It was under a warehouse, built with almost nothing, that the green shell was being separated from the rest of the fruit. The fiber of this shell was extracted to make cords and carpets. 

We took bicycles to explore alongside the Mekong. We used a small path under the canope to reach a family company where the elements of the coconuts were separated: juice, flesh and the two different shells of the fruit. One after another, we tried to cut and pealed the coconuts to keep the flesh which will be transformed in oil or candies. A tough job! The brown shell will be used to make charcoals or souvenirs. After crossing the island on our two wheels, we took a seat on our small boat.

The Mekong river, up to its Delta at the South of Vietnam, gave the tempo of our daily exploration since many days from our arrival in Laos. It was time to say goodbye to the Mekong. The separation with this huge natural symbol was marking also the end of our adventure with Aurélien. After a last beer with him, he will continue his adventure on his own and will head to Cambodia while we will head to Hô Chi Minh and its bus station at the West of the city. We did a two-hour bus journey.

Hô Chi Minh city, known as Saïgon until 1975, was the main city of Vietnam and was considered like its economics centre. Like the similar city at the North, this city is often considered being full of life for its traffic and the several horns going on. 

Our exploration of the city started by crossing the Ben Thanh market. The 3000 shops, packed in a massive warehouse without charm, are working form sunrise to sunset under a blazing heat. In the narrow aisles, vendors are exposing, on tiny shelves, Football shirts, shoes or food. 

After these emotions, we went to the street food market, a hipster place, showing the modernity of the city. Like all the street food places growing in the European cities, we found there a young and trendy ambiance, far away from the local restaurants. Nothing authentic, but it was still a good moment before restarting the exploration of the city. 

Our itinerary took us to the Notre-Dame Cathedral, one of the symbols of the city. Built by French catholic missionaries, this impressive building, made of bricks, could be considered as a Claude Nougaro’s work, as its architecture could be merging in Toulouse. Unfortunately in refurbishment, we could not visit the inside.

In front of this religious building, another remarkable monument stand in the big square. The central Post Office of Saïgon built by the French people at the end of the 19th century, combining the occidental architecture with the finest oriental details.

Slightly on the back of this historical place, we entered randomly in the narrow Nguyen Van Binh pedestrian street, usually called the “Books Street”. Genuine Oasis of peace in this busy city, the street offers (since its creation in 2016) a cultural break in the middle of the chaos of the megalopolis. More than dozen libraries exposing books, notebooks, post cards and spaces for chilling and reading.

The next day we started by a continental breakfast in the “Tous le jours” bakery, we coud not resist for a Caramel brioche with a coconut coffee, a Vietnamese speciality that we did not try before.

After quick tattoos by a talented Belgian artist, Elodie and Florian caught a flight back to France which ended their holidays with us. On our side we kept exploring the city and we went to the Vietnamese war museum. It shows the atrocity made by US during this period. Two rooms were exposing the disastrous impact of the Orange Agent (a herbicide poured by tons on the Vietnamese forests) and of napalm on the population. The exposed images were particularly hard to look at. The museum had also very good exhibits showing the work of excellent photographers during the war, dead on the field during the conflict. Even if the photos were statics, they were alive through the emotions they were showing. It honoured these fearless photographers who put their lives to report the atrocity of the war to the world.

For lighter thoughts, we took the direction of the Art Museum. This massive ochre building could easily find its place as a rich family house on a hill of French Provence. In its rooms, the paintings shown were not the most vibrants but its modern art floor was highlighting some beautiful and colourful artworks. Our exploration of the city ended in front of the city hall with the Ho Chi Minh statue.

The preparation of our rucksacks gave the pace of our last morning in South-East Asia. We took a cab to the airport. We sat down, not in an old style caravel, but in a brand new plain. After a stop in the modern city of Singapour, we flew direction the fresh spring of the North of Europe.

The talent of Khami.inkz

Belgian tattoo artist setup now in Brussel. During our visit of Ho Chi Minh, he was drawing on the skins at the “France Passion tattoo” studio.

Where to eat? 

“Tous les Jours” Bakery
Hô Chi Minh

Franchised French bakery placed in different corners of the city. A good choice, a bit pricy to compare to our usual noodle soups but very good to balance our lack of French pastries.

Quan An Dong Restaurant
Phường 6 District 4 –  Hô Chi Minh

Small traditional canteen for local people. They come for diner on the terrace in this busy street.