Ho Chi Minh City, July 19
The city formerly known as Saigon, named after the father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City was an Indochina destination that we were eager to visit. You could instantly feel the difference between the HCMC and Hanoi the second we exited the airport. HCMC is a bustling city with clear signs of economic progress, but it still maintains its culture and traditions.
Like Hanoi, the city is engulfed by thousands upon thousands of motorcycles flowing in every direction. It is these never-ending streams of motorcycles that define Vietnam; you actually have to see it to believe it! In the evenings, the streets are filled with small makeshift kitchens selling various soup dishes to hungry locals while they sit on tiny plastic stools resting no more than a foot of the ground.
Unlike Hanoi, HCMC is felt much more open. The buildings seemed taller and leaner and the sky seemed to be much more visible.However, neither city can boast about it being clean. Both are filled with litter and garbage and smell of yesterdays rotting vegetables. The emissions from the thousands of motorbikes and dilapidated trucks can be intolerable at times. But these are the things that make HCMC the city that it is, a city that we really enjoyed visiting!
It is interesting seeing the propaganda that still exists throughout the city, and country for that matter. We can't remember the last time we've visited a country that has so many flags raised, the red and yellow colours of communism are proudly displayed for all to see (insert opinion here). We stayed in the popular backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao, a quieter and more mellow version of Khao San Road in Bangkok. We didn't really have a plan for HCMC so we popped into a few tourist shops and looked for something to jump out at us. It did - the Cu Chi Tunnels! Nicole's friend Jackie had taken a similar tour week before and had good feedback, so we decided it would be $4 well spent.
We arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels and were first played a video that must have been made shortly after the Vietnam War. To set the mood, directly beside the old tube television is a large Vietnamese flag with a picture of Ho Chi Ming in front. The tone of the video was quite hilarious, especially since the people watching the videos are primarily Western tourists. I'm not sure if using the term "American Devils" is the right language in 2009, but I leave that open for debate. It was actually fascinating seeing the war strategies and outcome through the eyes of the victor. The victory over the Americans is something the country boasts proudly and with sincerity. Even our tour guide, who couldn't be more than 25 years old, was quick to show us how weak the Americans were and how strong the Vietnamese strategy was… fascinating!
The tunnel network of some 250km's is absolutely mind blowing. To our amazement, the tunnels have actually been doubled in size to accommodate the larger Western tourist body type. Even still, these current tunnels were thin and claustrophobic with very little light and air. To think, many Viet Cong soldiers and guerillas lived in these tunnels for weeks on end without surfacing for fresh air and sunlight! Rather than give you the complete play-by-play, take a look at the photo album for HCMC and see for yourself. The picture of a model used to illustrate the tunnel network will give you a sense of its grandeur.
Now a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels would not be complete without firing off rounds from an AK47, would it? I thought so too!Nicole on the other hand was not so impressed by the option to fire such a weapon. The bullets were quite expensive so I teamed up with another British tourist to split on a box of ten. It was a surreal feeling shooting such a powerful weapon. Afterwards, we both agreed that it takes a certain type of person to be able to fire such a weapon in the heat of battle. It was hard enough to get within five feet of the target with a supervisor loading and clutching the gun, let alone being chased and fired upon during battle! I have a new found respect for soldiers, and a reconfirmed stance - I should never be put in combat with a weapon!
Just before leaving Cu Chi we passed a vendor that was selling cobra wine. We had seen several bottles of cobra wine with scorpion displayed in retail stores throughout the HCMC, and were curious to learn more about it. When the vendor offered a free sample Cameron jumped on the opportunity to try something different. We did not sample snake in Hanoi so this seemed like a good consolation. Let's just say that it was an interesting thing to try… once. It did not taste good at all, but I'm not sure that it's supposed to? I guess it's an acquired taste.
We spent the remaining three days wandering the streets, shopping and drinking draft beer from another bia hoi vendor that we found (apparently the only one in the area s we were pretty lucky to have found it!). Cameron had wanted to get a tailored suit made while in Vietnam and time was running out, so we spent one evening selecting fabrics and getting fitted. For US$80 we got a charcoal suit and two sharp tailored shirts… not a bad deal! We packaged everything up and shipped it back home on the slow boat, it should arrive home around the same time we do!
On our final night we revisited the bia hoi vendor… the $0.65 jugs of beer kept calling us back after afternoons of hot sightseeing. As mentioned in a previous blog, we met a couple in Manila (Dee and Marcus) that told us about these cheap draft beer locations. As we sat down and drank our first glass, we looked over and sure enough… there was Dee and Marcus! Now what are the odds that we would run into them drinking at the same dodgy streetside beer joint in another country?! We pushed our tables together and swapped more travel stories over cheap beer, baffled by the likelihood of us running into each other again.
The next morning we woke early to catch our eight hour bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Our 11 days in Vietnam flew by and it was time to meet up with Andrew and Nicola and explor the temples of Angkor. On the long bumpy bus ride to the Cambodian border we reflected on our time in Vietnam; we really enjoyed the places that we visited but probably would not return. It was very interesting being in a communist country and learning about the Vietnam War through its eyes.
It was unfortunate that we did not get to travel to the rural coastline, but Vietnam is a big country! I guess that's the downside to visiting so many wonderful places on this journey, we start to compare experiences and countries. In that context, we would not rank Vietnam high on the list, but thoroughly enjoyed our time there and would not have done it any differently.