It's hard to believe that it's been four years since we went to Vietnam. I wrote a blog called Asia Trip 2005 about that trip with 63 entries describing different aspects of the country. A few seasons ago on The Amazing Race, they visited Hanoi and Halong Bay which I posted about here. What I didn't talk about on that blog was that on our way back to the United States from Vietnam we spent three days in Japan.
So when the first three episodes of this season's Amazing Race took place in Tokyo and Vietnam, I got an extreme case of deja vu. So here are some of the places we saw that were also spots along the Amazing Race.
One of the major landmarks in Tokyo is the Tokyo Tower, a full size replica of the Eiffel Tower. But in typical Japanese efficiency they made their version more slender and steamlined. It is also in a crowded neighborhood (as most Tokyo neighborhoods are) not an a broad plaza like the Eiffel Tower, so it is not nearly imposing as the original.
The racers first stop in Vietnam was to go to the Mekong Delta, about two hours from Saigon (I can't bring myself to call it Ho Chi Minh City). The Mekong is broad muddy river with all sorts of river traffic. The size of the boats on the river ranges from long barges and big ferries to small saipans barely out of the water. We were in a little boat with a skimpy roof when a major rainstorm hit and we spent nearly an hour bobbing on the river waiting for it to pass.
While the Racers were herding ducks, in the background they had traditional Vietnamese musicians playing the oddly atonal stringed instruments and singing. We had gone to a restaurant in Hue that specializes in this music and the musicians used on The Amazing Race were every bit as good.
The Racers went to a fruit garden and had to muck mud to the trees. Tree groves in Vietnam are often on little patches of land only accessible by boat. It was a similar garden in Saigon where I finally got my first taste of durian.
Water puppets are a native Vietnamese art form and a lot of fun to watch. We saw the original water puppets in Hanoi, but it seems that Saigon has a water puppet theater as well. One of the funniest bits on show was watching the contestants try to grab little ribbons out of the mouths of the furiously circling water puppet dragons.
Saigon Post Office
One of the clues took the teams to the gorgeous colonial era post office in the center of Saigon. While I don't have any pictures of it, it is a grand building full of wrought iron details reminiscent nineteenth century France.
The pitstop for the third leg of the race was at the former presidential palace of South Vietnam. One of the iconic symbols of the war is of a North Vietnamese tank crashing the gate of the palace signaling the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. That particular tank is now in a museum in Hanoi, but other tanks that took part are still on the grounds.
This modernist building now serves as a museum to the corruption and extravagance of the old regime. Some people on the Television Without Pity message boards questioned the tastefulness of using this building and the memories it invokes as a pitstop. I thought the brief introduction Phil Keoghan gave was suitably somber, but history is written by the winners and, trust me, there are far more rub-your-nose-in-it places they could have gone. The building is one of the major landmarks in Saigon and not using it as a location would be shortchanging the viewers of essential experience.
I love The Amazing Race because of the vicarious thrill of visiting faraway remote places I may never get to. But even better is when they do visit places I've been to. Then I get to savor the recognition of familiar sights. In both Vietnam and in Tokyo the show did a fantastic job of capturing the chaos of the urban crowds as well as the simple but hard aspects of contemporary rural life in this country of amazing beauty.