Mr Dien has quite a story to tell (via a tour guide who is translating) because he is a former medic in the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam – better known in the west as the Viet Cong, or VC. (Incidentally the insurgents did not care much for that westernised term, a contraction of Viet Nam Cong-san, or Vietnamese Communist, though they did not mind so much the American troops’ use of the nickname Charlie). He joined the VC as a 17-year-old in 1963 and served continually until they were disbanded a year after North Vietnam’s world-shattering victory over the US-backed South in 1975.
He was wounded by an air strike in the battlefield, losing part of his right ear and still has shrapnel in his back; it was deemed safer to leave it than remove it.
I asked him if he tended any South Vietnamese or US soldiers. “Yes, it did not matter. A wounded man needs help, whoever he is.’’
Today, highly-decorated Mr Dien, who lives quietly with his family in a large, comfortable house in the village, is still helping people, as he runs a local pharmacy from his property and he is adamant the Communist triumph was for the lasting good of the country.
My fascinating insight into this slice of modern history – and an old cotton weaving workshop – was on an included excursion from Lotus Cruises’ luxurious Mekong Navigator ship, which I had joined in a delta port for a four-night journey upriver to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
And while sailing on a section of the 2,703-mile Mekong beckoned, first there was the matter of another mode of transport – a scooter tour of the frantic streets of Ho Chi Minh City with Vespa Adventures (vespaadventures.com, around £60).
I’d been here before and had seen the crazy traffic (crossing any road is an act of faith and an art form in itself) and was mildly anxious about being a moving part of these turbulent arteries.
Rural backwater villages are dotted around Vietnam’s vast, sultry Mekong Delta
So I put my hopes in the skills of my driver, Duc. Surprisingly, as he steered us through some ambitiously narrow gaps between buses, cars and other weaving scooters, my anxiety evaporated and I realised I was loving it.
The whole experience lasted 90 minutes, including a stop at the wonderful Ho Thi Ky street flower market; as we went on the wrong side of the road, on a pavement and who knows where,
I didn’t want it to stop.
I have no idea how the traffic in HCMC works; the rules are there are no rules, I guess, but it just works somehow.
Things calmed down that evening with a dinner sailing on the Saigon River on board the Saigon Sensation boat, also owned by Lotus. Dazzling views of the city centre’s skyscrapers – including my pre-cruise hotel, the excellent Le Méridien Saigon – were the backdrop to a sumptuous meal (saigonsensation.vn, around £31pp).
Next day, after a bus transfer to My Tho, one of the main cities in the world’s second largest river delta at 15,666 sq mi (almost as big as Switzerland), I joined the boutique 230ft all-suite Navigator.
Explore the Throne Hall and Silver Pagoda at Phnom Penh’s Grand Royal Palace
She oozes French colonial style, but has all the contemporary luxuries you could wish for as just 68 passengers glide along the languid Mekong.
My Signature Suite came with a spacious balcony, huge comfortable bed, ample storage space and a lovely bathroom.
Obviously, on a shall ship like this, nothing is too far away and you can be on a lounger on the sun deck in moments, or enjoying a cold drink in the delightful Le Salon lounge bar or dining in the upscale Le Marche restaurant, where the quality of food (Vietnamese, Cambodian and Western)excelled morning, noon and night with Khmer beef a thing of joy in particular.
While wi-fi is available throughout, there’s a library for non-digital reading and a small spa and gym for pampering and burning off some calories.
But while the ship is a delightful floating haven and a fine place to enjoy the passing scenery and river craft (some so heavily laden and low in the water I thought they must be sinking), the daily excursions are an absolute must – and are led by local guides who stay on the ship with you, so you really get to know them and benefit from their deep knowledge.
Which is when I found myself arriving in the delta village of My An Hung, being asked if I heard of Duran Duran.
Bit random, I thought. I quite liked a couple of the 80s band’s hits at the time, but never bought any of their records; definitely preferred them to Spandau Ballet though.
Of course, due to some increased engine noise as our sampan manoeuvred to moor up, I’d misheard and was being asked about the infamous durian.
As our tour guide Thang (English name Thomas) said, this fearsome fruit native to southeast Asia “smells like hell but tastes like heaven”.
I had a sniff of one that had been cut open and, while I wouldn’t say it was ‘‘hell’’, it was certainly not pleasant: if I was told that’s what a tramp’s underpants smell like, I’d believe it.
While the taste was not heavenly to be but acceptable (like a lightly spiced custard), I was not keen on the slimy texture. But I’ve had worse (braised jellyfish for breakfast in China springs to mind).
Luckily, back on the ship a lunch of wonton soup and Thai green curry washed down with a cold Cambodian beer was a huge improvement.
The durian fruit ‘smells like hell but tastes like heaven’
The tour to My An Hung – where there’s an alarmingly wobbly/flimsy wooden bridge – had been another excellent, included excursion, the first of which took passengers by sampan to Cai Be to see live-aboard floating market boats where the owners sold fruit, veg and rice, and on to an indoor market to see how puffed rice snacks and rice sweets are made – and to try ‘snake wine’ which is indeed rice wine in a jar with a cobra in it (ethanol in the drink makes the snake’s venom non-toxic). It was better than the durian – just.
On to Sa Dec – again by sampan as the ship does not moor up on the voyage, instead anchoring mid-stream – to take in a Chinese temple and a house used as a location in The Lover, the first Western produced movie shot in the unified Vietnam.
We returned to the sampan via a street market, which offered the amusement of two dogs riding as passengers on a scooter and the somewhat challenging sight of large, live frogs being beheaded and skinned.
I was a tad concerned when I spotted Navigator’s executive chef shopping in the market, but thankfully he was buying veg, not freshly butchered Kermit.
Nigel crossing an ‘alarmingly wobbly/flimsy wooden bridge’ during a tour to My An Hung
The final excursion was in our last stop Phnom Penh (some sailings continue on to Siem Reap for trips to the incredible Angkor Wat temple complex).
Our tour took us by tuk-tuk to the wonderful Royal Palace, home to the Throne Hall and the mesmerising Silver Pagoda. Given the high standard of the excursions, this one stood out for being a little chaotic, as the whole complex was horribly crowded.
The adjacent National Museum was less frenetic, and my group was able to relax as we appreciated a stellar collection of Khmer artworks.
A fabulous four nights had slipped by so quickly and after a final delicious lunch back on board it was time to disembark and head home…but not directly home, there was just a little more of southeast Asia still to see.
One night in Bangkok? Why not?