Holy S#!T! Ho Chi Minh City is just as crazy as everyone says it is. I'm not sure that a higher concentration of motorbikes exists on this planet, and if it does, they'd be hard pressed to drive more recklessly and with less regard to life, law and well being of others. You take your life into your hands with every street crossing as you wade out into the sea of motorbikes and watch as they slowly part for you. We definitely had a few moments we felt like Frogger, although we got used to it pretty quickly...that is of course if you ever really get "used" to that.
We got to HCMC late morning after yet another overnight bus experience from Sihannoukville. This one was different in that we had the first stint on a 'sleeper' bus and also because we'd shared a "happy shake" in the hour before getting on. To both of those elements I'll just say "wow" and tip my hat.
We'd booked our hotel ahead of time as we usually do so were a little irritated when we tried to check in and were coldly advised that they were full and so we'd be staying around the corner at another hotel instead. It wasn't all that big of a deal and we made our way and dropped our stuff then headed out to explore a bit.
We made our way over to the Reunification Palace which is the building where the communist tank crashed through the wall on April 30, 1975 which is the day that Saigon surrendered to the communist North. We took a pretty interesting tour and snapped a few photos before wandering back out into the city. On the way back we walked through the main market and also the main shopping district just to check it all out.
For dinner that night we went searching for a vegetarian restaurant we'd heard about, but ended up not finding it so settled for another place that had Vegetarian Pho on the menu for Gina. On the way home we passed a little bar that had a live jazz band so we went in to check it out for a little. They ended up covering Christmas Carols for a little which was fun.
In the morning we took a cab out to a country club where we could use the gym and got a good workout in even though the place was nowhere near as nice as the gym we'd been to in Phnom Penh. One strange thing is that the restaurant attached to the complex was a micro brewery. Not sure I've ever seen that combo before.
In the afternoon we went out and tracked down a nice Vietnamese sandwich for lunch. It has been on my list for a long time; I used to have a slight addiction to them when I was working at Mountain Hardwear years back so was excited to get into the goods.
By the time we wandered our way back taken care of a few things we decided it was time for a happy hour cards session and so proceeded to a little spot we'd seen the day before which was little more then a few plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk, but which had the cheapest Saigon beers we'd seen in town yet. We watched the sunset on the city and marveled at the traffic and fact that there weren't any accidents given the maniacal motorbike driving we watched.
We decided to swing past the hotel before heading out for dinner that evening to drop a few things off and freshen up and as we walked into the lobby we were very surprised to see a full on buffet dinner being laid out. The hosts implored us to come join them for "Christmas dinner" and so after a quick run up to the room, we came and joined them. They were very, very generous with the food and drinks indeed piling my plate high with all sorts of things. Gina got out of most of it since there was very little vegetarian friendly food there so she got to sit and watch as I ate a few unknown, but funky looking items that the ladies had made sure I had plenty of. Most of it was good, but a few things I had a few polite bites of while they watched and quickly disposed of when they turned around. There were a few young family members who were loving the Heineken case that they had open and instigated a loud and rambunctious "Cheers" that we all participated in about every 5 minutes. We ended up sitting next to a nice Cambodian gentleman and his family and chatted with them for the 45 or so minutes that we were there.
After thanking them profusely and having to turn down multiple offers for more food we made our way out into the hectic HCMC night to find dinner for Gina. I'd had more then my share for dinner so just hung out as G ordered and ate very, very mediocre Mexican food. After dinner we purchased our tickets for our tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels the following morning and then headed back to the hotel to sleep.
The morning came quick and we were up and at 'em early to checkout and find our way onto the bus and headed for Cu Chi. On the way we stopped at a Arts and Crafts factory that employs only workers who have been affected by the Agent Orange legacy of the U.S./Vietnam War. The drive out went quickly as our tour guide gave us a very informative account of Vietnamese history including the war and the years since. It is always interesting to hear history from another perspective and we both really enjoyed his stories.
Finally we got to the tunnels and joined the literal herds of tourists for the several hour tour. We started off with a film. Wow, cringe worthy propaganda at points causing me, G and other American's to exchange glances and awkward half smiles as we listened to the explanation of the U.S. Soldier as (essentially) blood thirsty, war crazed "devils" intent on killing any and everyone they could and the quite opposite description of the noble and heroic Viet-Cong soldiers who were defending the people of Vietnam. Safe to say that this film wasn't shown in any US history class I ever took.
After the film and a quick description of the map and of the tunnels we headed out to see it all with our own eyes. The tour consists of several elements including viewing some of the secret entrances, displays of some of the very gruesome boobie traps that were used in the area and a stop off at the gun range where you can shoot authentic AK-47, M-16 and huge 50 Cal machine guns. We gave the shooting a miss, but it was pretty eery to be walking through the jungle looking at the tunnels and different boobie traps and to hear the noise of automatic weapons being discharged off in the distance. Finally, there are the tunnels that you can go into yourself. We both went down: they were pretty awful: hot, humid, musty and dirty. And these were some that had specifically been made taller for tourists: the originals were 1/2 the height as the ones we went into and were pitch black and rigged with extensive booby traps to discourage US or South Vietnamese soldiers from infiltrating them. We went under for about 150 meters, but during the war the tunnel system was over 200km long. Pretty crazy. The last stop before heading back was to have a cup of tea and small snack (they called it Tapioca, but I know it as Yucca (a starchy root also common in Cuban cuisine).
Back on the bus we decided to take the tour up on the offer to drop us off at the War Remnants museum which was pretty intense. There are several floors of exhibits dedicated to the war. I expected there to be a lot more propaganda then there was. I mean, it's certainly told from the perspective of the North Vietnamese, but the rhetoric didn't seem to be as fierce as it had been in the video at Cu Chi. The exhibits are all gruesome in their imagery in particular the part dedicated to the Agent Orange legacy which still affects many thousands of Vietnamese around the country. I found that portion to be very difficult viewing. It's not the type of place you feel uplifted when you leave and we certainly didn't. It didn't help our mood much either when the shady taxi driver pulled a fast one on us and he ended up with an extra $10 or so. No big deal really, but a clear to us to reminder to stay alert at all times; especially when dealing with taxis and the like. They seem to attract the shady type.
That afternoon we finished up a little shopping after a way late lunch and then made our way back to our neighborhood to kill the several hours with no hotel room until we headed to the airport. Ho Chi Minh was going off for Christmas, huge displays, people singing and dancing. We were a bit surprised considering they're mainly Buddhist in Vietnam. We got involved with the cheap and cheerful happy hour before venturing out to the vegetarian restaurant we'd been searching for on day 1. We found it this time and G had a great big bowl of Vegie noodle soup. I held off as I had a date with a huge bowl of my own: Phó was on the menu for me and I'd spotted a great looking spot not far away. We both had great final dinners in HCMC and navigated the hectic traffic one last time back to the hotel to grab our stuff and hit the airport. We showed up and checked in with no drama as the airport was pretty deserted actually as it was approaching midnight on Christmas Eve. Only a few days in Vietnam as we're off to Philippines for 3 weeks before coming back to head North and see more of this interesting country.