Hello again from Ho Chi Minh City, where we've just returned after an overnight trip to the Mekong Delta. We are only here for the afternoon as tonight we catch the first of three overnight trains up the Vietnamese coast. Its an aspect of the trip I'm not really looking forward to, especially given the times we are due to arrive at our destinations. Tomorrow we will be arriving in the beach town of Nha Trang at 6am, which is by far the least harsh of the early arrivals. The other two trains are due in at 4.30am and 4.10am, and there is no guarantee we'll be able to check in to our hotels when we get there.
Our private bus journey to the Mekong Delta was a nice and short 2.5 hour trip. The traffic was bad though and we never really got out of an urban area - it was built up all the way to our destination town of Ben Tre. We picked up a local woman guide on the way, and she took us first to a coconut sweet factory for a look round. The people working there were paid pitiful amounts and the conditions were poor compared to what you would get in a western factory, but the workers all looked chirpy. I tried the finished product but don't like coconut so wasn't a fan.
After a very slow lunch (service in Vietnam seems to take ages) we caught a private boat along the Mekong River. I had seen images of the delta on postcards and was expecting a bustling and picturesque haven of floating markets and fisherman. However the scene was more akin to a quiet day on the Manchester Ship Canal. There were very few boats and fisherman about, no floating markets, and a series of smoke emitting factories lining the riverbanks. It was a bit disappointing. The boat took us to view a couple of the factories, firstly starting with a brick factory and then a factory producing salt. It felt like a bit of a geography school trip, but it was interesting to see the working conditions. They weren't horrendous but neither factory had much in the way of technology, and it was all manual labour. The surprising thing was that most of the workers were women. Apparently men mainly work in construction and boat driving, leaving the women to work in the factories and pick rice from the paddy fields.
After our short industrial tour we left the main section of the river and headed down a small tributary into the heart of some dense jungle. Water palms lined the riverside making for a a very tropical scene. After about 20 minutes of sailing we arrived at our homestay, which was a wooden construction almost jutting out over the river. It was much nicer than our Cambodian homestay, and they had a lot more facilities. The guide first took us on a short bike ride around the village. For many people on this trip cycling is an extreme activity that causes severe discomfort and exhaustion, but I found the 1 hour slow and flat bike ride very relaxing. If anything we we went too slowly to allow everyone to keep up and it was an effort to keep your balance. We had one stop at a local house to taste some local fruit and observe some people making mats, but the rest of the time we cycled around a network of narrow village lanes. There were plenty of motorbikes to dodge despite the rural setting. Not so long ago Vietnamese people all used push bikes, but now they'll take a motorbike if they have to go 100 yards to the shop. Its not just Americans who are lazy!
In the evening the host family cooked us a meal and then played some folk music for our entertainment. The old man of the house was very enthusiastic about his singing and he had quite a powerful voice. I was pleased that this time we at least had some interaction with our hosts, as in Cambodia there was none. In the morning (after a distrurbed night's sleep) they all saw us off on our boat back to Ben Tre in spite of the rainy weather. Its the first proper rain I've had in Asia and I'm glad I don't have much planned today. My sole objective is to buy a new pair of shorts to replace my cream ones which have ripped. This may not be easy though, as from what shops I've seen so far none sell shorts! Despite the fact temperatures in South Vietnam are over 30C almost every day of the year, the locals all wear trousers and jeans! I'm still hopeful the main market will have some, but I know I'll have to put up with a lot of harrassment when I'm browsing. Last time the stall holders were literally grabbing your arms and pulling you in! The produce is very cheap here though and I shouldn't have to pay more than $5, which equates to a crazy 100,000 Vietnamese Dong. There are 30,000 Dong to the pound!
My next stop is Nha Trang and hopefully I'll update from there. There doesn't seem to be many internet cafe's in Vietnam though, and what Internet there is is very slow. I don't think the government have invested much in internet technology here and it seems as though they view it as some kind of evil. There is a lot of state filtering of websites, and since last November Facebook has been blocked. You can at least get on the BBC News website, though Vietnam is about the first country I've been to where CNN and BBC World Service aren't available on the TV. I best be careful what I say in these blogs!