Ho Chi Minh...Saigon...Whatever you like!!!
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
From the moment we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), I could not get 'The heat is on in Saigon' (Miss Saigon fans?) out of my head! After a mammoth 10 hour bus journey (including a bribe to get us across the river) we arrived at midnight to this bustling city. Within seconds of stepping off the bus we were whisked in to a taxi by a rather angry Vietnamese man. Silence in the cab was somewhat unsettling as he stared at us occasionally via the rear view mirror. "Where you from?" he asked "Erm…England???" we reply. Ding ding ding!!! Right answer! A smile from our driver and we could draw a breath as he spent the remainder of the journey telling us about Saigon and its sights.
We soon pulled up to a very dingy looking alleyway. Tens of Vietnamese people lined the alley, eating street food and drinking beer and all looking quite bemused at the two white people who had just rocked up to their alley. Worryingly our hotel was nowhere to be seen. We started to question the taxi driver who insisted it was down this pick pockets mecca but as we grew more concerned we became more agitated and 'questioned' whether he had delivered us to our address of choice. This didn't seem to please him too much and by the time he had physically marched us into our hotel (20 seconds further up the alley…oops maybe we should have looked a bit further) he had reverted back to his former angry state.
After a welcome night's sleep and a good breakfast on the roof of our hotel we were ready to explore our new home for the next day few days. Our first stop would be The War Remnants Museum.
The museum actually used to be called The Aggressive War Crimes of The USA Museum and from the moment you enter it's pretty apparent that the USA is hated here. The museum is pretty biased therefore I feel that I was unable to gain a true understanding during my visit but it was interesting all the same. The huge tanks and aircrafts are very impressive and are kept in immaculate condition and the gallery of war photography and victims of Agent Orange are deeply harrowing and portray a more honest insight in to this terrible war. Sadly, propaganda is rife here as you will see if you ever venture out to this part of the world but if you take it all with a pinch of salt you'll find this museum to be a worthwhile visit.
For $5 our hotel arranged for us to join a tour group to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels; over 200km of underground tunnels and caves used by the Viet Kong during the War. We boarded our tour bus and made our way to the only two vacant seats at the back of the bus. There we met and uber cool Aussie guy from Melbourne called Lucas and yes I did practice my Aussie accent on him! We sat and listened as our tour guide told us of Vietnam's history and then proceeded to tell us about how much he loves Vietnamese women "Oh yeah, I love the honeys" "They slim like noodles" then I think he made that noise that Homer makes when he sees a doughnut!
The first stop on arrival at the tunnels was an original entrance hole to the tunnels and was used mainly for photographic purposes. Most of the group took turns to climb down and have a snapshot. This was fine until one (not so slender) girl climbed down and on attempting to exit got her tummy caught in the hole and had to be lifted out by our tour guide whilst he told her to "Give up McDonalds lady" "Eat the noodle soup, make you slim like the Vietnamese honeys".
We were shown all the sinister traps that the extremely 'innocent' Viet Kong made to maim and injure the American troops (including 'The Door Trap' which was used mainly to 'de-man' the American soldier) and then we got to venture down the actual tunnels (well a modified tunnel for us fatty Westerners). The tunnel was tiny and claustrophobic with no air and no light and after a couple of minutes I was done and took the next escape hatch. Darren the boy wonder (whom I have learnt fears nothing) continued to the very end. There was an opportunity at the end of the tour to fire some rifles but at 30,000d (£1) for one bullet with a minimum purchase of ten we cheaped out.
Whilst in Saigon we were lucky enough to catch a show at The Saigon Opera House. It was ok, not the standard you would ever find in England but it was very inventive and intriguing and The Opera House was beautiful, I am so glad we were able to gain this experience.
On leaving The Opera House we noticed the distinct contrast between this district and 'backpacker land' where we were staying. High end restaurants and designer stores lined the streets here with magnificent glowing fountains and grand monuments. Quite the sight to behold but somehow it didn't feel like a true reflection of the Saigon we had come to discover.
Back in backpacker land, the streets were rammed, the bars buzzing and the music roaring. Everywhere you turn a skimpily dressed Vietnamese girl (GIRL not WOMAN) is trying to lure you into their bar. Every bar you enter, a street vendor follows trying to sell you books, lighters, jewellery, 'cillarettes'?? There is no escape from this frantic haven and its street sellers. Whilst sitting enjoying a beer a man approached me asking to fix my shoes as he could see they were in need of repair. He was right, they were a mess. He kicked of his flip flops and offered them to me whilst my shoes were in use and then sat on the floor carefully gluing the soles back together, the beads back in place and then he polished them back to new. A second man approached Darren offering the same service but Darren declined. At this point the man actually tried to remove Darren's shoes from his feet; he must have really wanted that sale.
On our final night in Saigon Darren talked me into getting a foot massage. A lovely young lady, speaking perfect English greeted us and sat us down in two comfy chairs and then in came two…men (??) to begin the massage. I tried to apologise to the young boy that happened to get me as my legs were a bit on the bristly side but with no comprehension of what I was saying the massage began. A rather soothing foot bath and a gentle rub gave us both false hope that this was to be quite the relaxing activity but as we sat drinking our rice tea the pain began to develop. Soon the masseurs were physically trying to force the knuckle of their forefingers through the soles of our feet and out the other side. Darren, who had the 'Muscles' working on him was taking quite the beating as 'muscles' continuously pummelled Darren's feet and legs with his clenched fists. After what seemed like an eternity of this my 'Kid' masseur managed, in broken English, to ask us where we were from "England" we reply. This answer was met with sudden laughter. Muscles and Kid look at each other and Kid explains "He thought you were French". Turns out that second on the list of hated countries after America is indeed France and today Darren was wearing a t-shirt adorned with French writing…fantastique! Funnily enough after this revelation the former glory of the serene massage was restored and ended with an arm, head and shoulder massage thrown in for good measure.
Looking at what I've written, Saigon doesn't sound that great but we actually really enjoyed it here. After various reviews, blogs and advice we'd received on Vietnam we were not looking forward to our visit here but despite the propaganda, insanity on the streets and murderous massages this crazy city was such an interesting place to explore and a truly great introduction to Vietnam.