The recurrent theme of Vietnamese history has been its struggle for independence from its big northern neighbour China, then from France and finally from the United States.
The rice rich Red River delta was the cradle of Vietnam. Legends tell of the Hung dynasty whose 18 kings each ruled 150 years, the last one being overthrown by Thuc Phan, lord of Au Lac in 257 BC. Recorded history begins in 207 BC with the annexation of Au Lac into Nam Viet by a renegade Chinese general Trieu Da who ruled from his capital near present day Canton.
At that time, the Mekong River delta in south Vietnam was part of the indianised Funan (100 to 600 AD) and Chenla (600 to 800), kingdoms that preceded the Khmer kingdom (802 to 1432), in the area that became Cambodia. In between the Red River and Mekong River kingdoms, the Champa kingdom on the southeast coast, survived periodic Chinese domination from the second to the 15th centuries.
In the 10th century the Chinese were repulsed and the Ly dynasty (1009 to 1225), extended Vietnamese influence south into Champa territory. The Vietnamese repulsed three Mongol invasions in the 13th century but were reconquered by the Chinese in 1407. Then, a national resistance movement led by Le Loi drove out the Chinese in 1428 and established the Le dynasty which lasted until the country was separated in two parts in 1757. Vietnam was reunited in 1808 but the French took it over as a colony later in that century.
The rest, colonial exploitation, W.W.II, decolonization, Dien Bien Phu and the tragic Vietnamese War is well known.
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I flew in from Phnom Penh early in the afternoon and went directly to the Kim Cafe that had been strongly recommended by other backpackers in Bangkok.
The usual tourist amenities were lacking, because Vietnam had only recently opened its doors to foreign visitors but the lack of infrastructures was largely compensated by the warm and spontaneous welcome of the Vietnamese people.
Now that it was allowed, private entrepreneurship popped up overnight everywhere like mushroom after rain. Thi Kim and Sinh cafes in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and a myriad of private minibus firms were examples of this paradigm shift.
I took a room near Kim's cafe (5$US), and set out to explore the city starting by the National Museum (previous photo), where I met this group of shy, giggling schoolgirls who just could not refrain from staring at the oddity of a westerner.
Here is the Lele guest house where I stayed on Bui Vien street, not far from Kim's cafe in downtown Saigon.
Kim's cafe and the Sinh cafe were full of backpackers from all over the world. There was a wonderful feeling of camaraderie between us for we were aware of being pioneers or trailblazers, opening up Vietnam to tourism.
After a couple of days in Saigon I joined a group to visit the Mekong delta. The group had been put together by the enterprising owner of Kim's cafe who had bought a minivan on credit and started a tour company to satisfy the needs of his backpacking customers.
Here is a view of a rice field from the minibus window as it was crossing a bridge.
After flowing 4500 km through China, Laos and Cambodia, the mighty Mekong splits into the Tien Giang or Upper Mekong River and the Hau Giang, also called the Bassac River. Both enter Vietnam where they further divide into the many rivers of the delta. This is the Tien Giang near Mytho, 70 km southwest of Saigon.
Rivers replace roads in the delta. South of here, the Tien Giang divides again into a network of rivers and canals through which one can go anywhere.
Vinh Long, 135 km Southwest of Ho Chi Minh City is a provincial capital. It has a great market as you can see. This young woman was selling nuoc mam of various grades. Nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce), replaces our salt and pepper and is used with all Vietnamese dishes.
Crossing the wide Bassac River (Hau Giang), on a ferry to get to Cantho in the late afternoon.
I had good company on this tour. Here four of us are being carted off to our hotel on this big pedal powered taxi. In the usual order, Raquel "Kelly" Cook from the US, me from Quebec, Delphine from France and Anne Galea from Australia.
There was a lot to see in Cantho. There was even this Hinayana Buddhist Pagoda serving the Khmer minority of the region.
The majority adheres to a Vietnamese version of Mahayana Buddhism that includes elements of ancestor worship, of Taoism and of Confucianism.
The colourful floating market on the Cantho river is so different from usual land based markets that it takes a while to realise that there is order in what appears to be utter chaos.
The delta people practically live on the water it is therefore normal that they be so nimble with those long oars.
A few have outboard motors.
Everywhere, people were smiling and waved friendly welcomes.
Population density is high in the delta but the people seem to like being close to each other.
The serpent being handled by the man on the right is big enough to feed the whole family.
Canals like this one criss-cross the land like streets in our cities.
There is something mysterious and hypnotic about the delta, the overwhelming vegetation, the gentle smiling people and water everywhere.
After two days we all went back to Saigon. I stayed a couple of days to get a visa for Laos and then made my way up the coast by minibus with Kelly and two Norwegians.
Our first stop was Nha Trang after a 10 hour ride that cost only 12$US. We all stayed at the Hung Dao hotel where I had a huge room with private bathroom for only 7$US. Vietnam is definitely not expensive!
There were some tourists, attracted by this beautiful beach, but not too many so it was still delightful. Unfortunately I could not help imagining how crowded, noisy, and gross this place will become when it becomes one of the "world class" resorts like Kuta in Bali or Phuket in Thailand.
Life's rhythm are still leisurely as you can feel seeing these people going to the central market on their bicycles
The handsome Long Son Pagoda was founded in the 19th century but has been rebuilt several times.
Nha Trang was called Kauthara when it was part of the Champa kingdom more than 15 centuries ago. The Cham people were of Malayo-Polynesian origin but their culture heavily Indianised.
This is the sun rising over the South China Sea early in the morning as I took a minibus for Hoi An with a new bunch of backpackers.