Ho Chi Minh City. What a whirlwind.
When it comes to this Vietnamese metropolis, I think that exploring your own way is probably the best option, so here is a little rundown on our day and night spent in Saigon.
Our bus dropped us off somewhere in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, and we had no idea where we were or where we were going. After swatting off the usual million offers to put both of us plus our big backpacks onto the back of one motorcycle (What? No.), we decided to split a taxi with our German buddy – the one who saved us from being left indefinitely in Phnom Penh – and were dropped off in District 1 near the typical central backpacker area.
We were midway through lunch when our German friend came running to tell us that there was a room down the alley next to us for $12 a night. Not too shabby for the big city. Upon further inspection, it was perfectly adequate – despite the exhausting six-story climb – and we decided to take it.
It just so happens that the store space underneath the guesthouse was home to a travel booking agent who spoke impeccable English and besides setting us up with tickets to the Cu Chi Tunnels and our bus tickets to Da Lat, he sat and talked with us for ages about Vietnamese politics, Obama’s visit, the South China Sea debacle, and countless other current events. It was really fascinating, especially with our nations’ histories, to get a glimpse of some of the viewpoints of Vietnamese citizens.
That night we took off in search of some street food, and on the way stumbled upon a government funded song and dance performance celebrating the birthday of Ho Chi Minh. Several locals approached us while we watched, and having just come from some of the touristy spots of Cambodia where we were generally looked at as human ATM machines, I was skeptical. However, each and every person that came to talk to us simply wanted to know where we were from and to make sure that we understood what we were watching and why it was happening. Just one of many of our beautiful experiences with the lovely people of Vietnam.
We played Frogger across several streets then finally made it to the market where we failed dismally at finding any street food I could eat. And thus began my love/hate relationship with Vietnamese food and its sometimes total lack of meat & fish free options. Finally, we decided to give the famous Vietnamese pho a chance and I was thrilled to find out that they had a vegetarian selection! Of course, they had to come back and tell me they had run out, so it came down to some pretty average veggie curry instead, but Liam began a long and beautiful relationship that night with his beloved pho.
Our second day in old Saigon, we woke early to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. We opted to visit the ones that they have not altered to make bigger for tourists. On the way they stopped at a design studio where victims of Agent Orange defects are trained in crafts to help support themselves. Though I was wary of the ethicality of it all, their work was gorgeous. At the tunnels themselves, it was pretty fascinating as an American to see the Vietnamese perspective of the war. Of course, seeing the videos of their destroyed homes and the carnage that came from the conflict, their views made so much sense. However, as the sister of an American Marine Corp fighter pilot veteran, it was a bit hard to digest as the video described the “devils in the sky” ruining their beautiful country, and told of the heroes awarded as American killers. It was such a turbulent time for the Vietnamese people though, and so much blood was spilled. Its easy to understand the disdain among older generations.
After arriving back in the city, we bought ourselves some famous Vietnamese coffee and settled ourselves on a bench in the park watching the ducks in the canal. A few minutes later, a group of local college students approached us and asked if we would mind talking to them for a while so that they could practice their English. Two hours later we were still chatting away. Five or six other locals joined in the conversation, and it was a truly magical afternoon getting to know all of them.
We left the park on a high and even more in love with the people of Vietnam. We returned to our little guesthouse, and Mr. Lee – our buddy from downstairs – rushed me and my pack onto the back of his motorbike and Liam onto the back of his friend’s, and we all plowed off into the notorious Ho Chi Minh City traffic. I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face throughout the entire ride. Lights whizzed past us as we dodged in and out of traffic, at times heading directly into oncoming lanes. It was invigorating to say the least.
He dropped us at the bus station where we received many stares, as we were the only westerners present. All of the announcements were in Vietnamese, but the thoughtfulness of the locals struck again as several different people helped us to get onto the right bus to Da Lat.
Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, the city that resonates so much with us through film and literature as this prime example of the exotic “far east”, really struck a chord with me. The pleasantness of the people made the buzzing metropolis feel much more intimate and set us off to a wonderful start on our Vietnamese adventure.
My advice for Ho Chi Minh City is to throw down the guidebook! Yes, take a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels or a day trip to the South, but when it comes to the city itself, I would recommend just losing yourself in the chaos and discovering all of the little treasures that the city has to offer.