We visited a rice-noodle factory. It was fascinating. Who would have thought? It wasn’t a big multi-national factory; though I’d have probably have found that interesting too having absolutely no knowledge of how rice noodles are made and being of a curious nature – I mean how do you turn a grain of rice into noodles? It was a small operation, which made it even more interesting.

Don had this to say: We’re taken into a large tin shed that is a hive of activity. There’s a woman feeding what look like large crepes into a machine that is cutting them into strips. On the other side of the machine is a woman who is catching handfuls of these strips and laying them on a sheet of brown paper. Once she has a pile of the strips she wraps them into a parcel. This is the finished product ready for sale.

Beyond that, in another room there are huge pots of white liquid bubbling on a concrete stove. Our guide tells us that the liquid is a mix of cooked rice and tapioca. There are dozens of bags of rice and tapioca stacked up near the entrance.

Nothing is wasted: the rice chaff is used as fuel to feed the fires. The shed is hot and steamy and the workers are wearing facemasks. As we watch we see ladlesful of the liquid being poured onto what look like large crepe makers, where they cook and are then lifted off with a basket-weave cylindrical paddle and laid out on a bamboo stretcher. Once a stretcher is full it’s taken outside to dry in the fresh air. The yard or garden is filled with these stretchers. Once partially dry the noodle crepes are taken back inside to the slicing machine.

How amazing: a whole mini-factory for the production of rice noodles. Who knew it was such a complicated process? We were open-mouthed at the elegance and efficiency of the entire operation.

10-12 January 2013. Saigon. I usually don’t have a problem with name changes, of people or places. Heck I’ve changed my own name several times, and have many friends who’ve changed their name. Madras now Chennai. Fine. Tanganyika now Tanzania. Fine. Bombay now Mumbai. No problem. But I really have trouble with Burma becoming Myanmar, and Saigon becoming Ho Chi Minh City. It’s nothing political. It’s just the grooves in my brain. Ho Chi Minh City and Myanmar just don’t sound right. There seems to be a certain romance missing.

Traffic in Saigon is terrifying. I’ve been more tense crossing the major roads in Saigon than anywhere else, more than Delhi, more than Hanoi. Hanoi was fine actually. The streets are very crowded and the traffic doesn’t stop, but if you don’t rush out, and don’t hold back, but slowly walk out into the traffic and keep moving forward, gradually you will make your way across as it all flows around you. Like a river. The difference between Hanoi and Saigon is that in Hanoi the traffic is moving quite slowly. In Saigon not so much. It felt a bit like dodging bullets.

Don’s Saigon

We found the night market of course, the usual vibrant South East Asian treat. The markets of the “civilized” world have all been packaged and sterilized and homogenized and rehoused in chrome and glass and plastic. They lack the life and colour and sense of community of the markets of the developing world. In Asia the markets are alive and vibrant and fun, and entire stores and restaurants get set up each night and taken down at the end of the evening, only to be set up again the next night. We discovered one such restaurant and went there for dinner, having a very expensive, very delicious lobster meal.

We discovered these two young women setting up their store

And of course there was a balloon seller.

From the Oxford dictionary: flâneur
noun (plural flâneurs)
a man who saunters around observing society.
Origin: French, from flâner ‘saunter, lounge’

Don and I like to go flaneuring. We just set out to see what we can discover away from the main roads. We stroll, we saunter. Here’s some of what we came upon in the narrow side streets of Saigon

Nap time

And one from Don – guesthouse street

Sidewalk breakfast

I took the next series of photos through the bus window.

People here value light skin. It denotes a kind of wealth, or at least that you’re not a peasant working in the fields all day. So white people are always trying to get a tan, and the people of South East Asia trying to get to be, or stay light-skinned. In every country we went to the face and body creams for sale all claimed to contain a whitening ingredient. This woman makes sure she is well covered up, and it was not an uncommon sight. As it was fairly early in the day it may also have been for warmth. The glove sleeves come up over the sleeves of her hoodie.

The handyman. Everything he needs is somehow attached to his bike, including ladder and propane tank. So much stuff that there’s nowhere for his feet.

Somewhere under this pile of goods for sale is a man and a motorbike. See his helmet?

The bus was taking us to Cao Dai Temple, about an hour outside of Saigon, and then to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cao Dai is a Vietnamese religious movement that incorporates aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Catholicism. Their aim is for universal peace and harmony. Their Great Temple is a wonder to behold. So is their daily noon service complete with chanting and traditional Vietnamese music. Blue for Taoism, yellow for Buddhism, red for Christianity. It was all quite spectacular, and unique. And they’re willing to let hoards of tourists wander through the entrance halls and upper balconies during the service. It was riveting. I’ve never seen anything like it.

And one from Don

After lunch we went to the Cu Chi tunnels – miles of tunnels that were begun by the Vietnamese in the 1940’s to hide from the French, and then greatly expanded and used again during what the Vietnamese rightly call the American war. Miles of winding tunnels at three levels incorporating hidden entrances and air vents. If the Americans tried to gas or smoke the people out they’d simply move to a sealed lower level. Many lived down there for years. They’d come out at night, the men to fight, the women to tend their crops. It is astonishing to me how inventive and resilient people are. And clever. And such a fierce will to survive. Some bigger sample tunnels have been dug for westerners to crawl through, since most are too big to crawl through the real ones. Crawling through the tourist tunnels was a very brief glimpse into something I hope I never have to experience.

Two days by bus took us from Saigon to Phnom Penh, and Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Next couple of posts – amazing archeological ruins, a day on Tonle Sap Lake, some traditional Khmer dancing, another mountain top temple, a waterfall, and how to make palm sugar.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.