It’s 7pm, we have touched down in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam and Neil is complaining of no sleep and sore legs – fast learning the reality of budget air travel!But, excitement set in as we disembarked and geared up for a month of travel through Ho Chi Minh, Mui Ne, Da Lat, Hoi An, Sapa and Ha Long Bay.
Ho Chi Minh is a buzzing city with so much history – most of it is incredibly sad, overwhelmingly so, at one point I found myself crying in the middle of a museum.
Honk honk! Happy hour! Free drinks for your lady, sir! Come in, come in, good price! Mot, hai, ba, yo! (1, 2, 3, drink!), Where you from? Kiwi! Oh, I give you good deal! Hoonnkk!! Move out the way!
In Ho Chi Minh there is a street called Bùi Viên Street which everyone calls “Backpacker Street” because of all the hostels. The entire area is chaos, a lot of fun, a bit of a shock, just total carnage – we really enjoyed it.
We headed straight to our dorm via an Uber taxi, 237 Saigon Hotel, dumped our bags and ran to the closest pho eatery, so good! But more about the food later.Our dorm was a comfortable place to sleep in a good location – the street parallel to Backpacker Street, which meant we were still in the heart of the action, but we didn’t have to put up with the chaotic noise when we tried to sleep. The only problem we had there was the language barrier, it was a lot harder than the Philippines or Malaysia. We had been warned most Vietnamese would know very little English, thankfully I’m pretty good at charades, so communication just takes a little longer and Google Translate becomes an everyday app, no biggy. It was 111,000Dong ($7NZ) each per night, including breakfast and a warm shower! We’d crash there again.
HISTORY AND HAGGLING:
War Remnants Museum
One of our highlights was the War Remnants Museum, it was 15,000Dong ($1NZ) each to get in. We originally planned to spend about an hour here and stayed for over two.
The history of Vietnam was something we both new little of as neither of us took history in school, so to learn all about the war was very educational and shocking.
I don’t want to go into a big history lesson here so I’ll just mention a few of the things that caught my attention. The prisons were brutal and the images hung in the museum of the different kinds of torture were very graphic.
Tiger cages – these were small barbed wire cages, no bigger than a single bed, that would imprison seven to 14 people at a time. The prisoners would stay in these cages for up to years at a time leaving them paralysed or worse.
Another incredible part of this museum where we spent a lot of time was the photography rooms. There were a lot of foreign correspondents present during the war and a lot were photographers. The images were breathtaking. Most people have heard of or seen copies of Nick Ut’s “The Napalm Girl”.
There was an entire section on Nick Ut’s photos from the war and the original copy of “The Napalm Girl” on display – when I saw this the tears started. Neil had to pull me aside for a cuddle before we saw the rest.
Agent Orange – I found this one of the most disgusting parts of the war. This incredibly poisonous herbicide/defoliant chemical is still impacting peoples lives today. The Americans dropped this chemical throughout parts of Vietnam during the over 17-year-long war. Millions of people suffered terrible health problems at the time, but because of the damage to environment people are still experiencing those problems today.
The Red Cross of Vietnam has estimated that up to one million people are disabled or have health issues because of the contamination of Agent Orange today. Of course, the museum was very one-sided as we were in Vietnam and there was a lot of propaganda – I would have felt very uncomfortable going there as an American.
Cu Chi Tunnels
We did a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels the day after we’d been to the museum, it cost 220,000Dong ($14NZ) each and was well worth it. The Vietnamese people were so incredibly clever when it came to tactics during the war and the tunnels serve as true testament to their smarts.We got to go down into the tiny spaces and I have to admit I freaked out a little and got out just before the crawling started.
Neil, however, came out at the end covered in sweat and dust, “it was too small for me! They must have been tiny!” He said.
And he was right, our tour guide said they were very small people and even though he was Vietnamese, he was a lot bigger than the people who lived there at the time. It’s crazy to think they would stay underground for months at a time.
Ben Thanh Market
The Ben Thanh Market, wow, this place was massive! We wandered around it for a good few hours buying gifts and little trinkets to take home.
It was very fun to barter with the vendors and we often managed to get them down to a third of the original asking price.We definitely got lost in there a few times and although it was a lot of fun, it was also where I got to see my first cat size rat! I’ve now seen so many it seems normal, so strange.
Another place we checked out was the Palace of Independence (40,000Dong ($2.50NZ) entrance) – this wasn’t all that exciting really, the building was not how I would imagine a place, but the decorations were beautiful. It was a nice walk out of the heat and also full of lots of history to read.
The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica was just down from the palace so we swung by on our way to the Saigon Central Post Office – both were very beautiful buildings and entrance was free. We spent about 15 minutes at each just being typical tourists.
Just around the corner from the post office was Duong Sach Tp – AKA Book Street. This entire street was full of book shops and book cafes full of, well, books! I absolutely loved it! It’s the kind of place I could spend the whole day, so many books! But, Neil wasn’t to fussed so we browsed and bought a few postcards.
After the Philippines I was hankering for some decent grub, Vietnam puts on a good spread. On our first night we went for a classic Vietnamese dish, Pho – rice noodle soup with chicken, chilly, herbs and broth, it was so good!
On our second day we had lunch and dinner with Neil’s beautiful cousin Amy. For lunch she took us to a local eatery where we had spring rolls and Bun Cha, another classic – rice noodles with pork meat balls, fresh salad and herbs. Oh my, I absolutely love the food here! And, it’s basically all gluten-free because they mainly use rice for everything, even their flour is rice flour.
For dinner, Amy took us to a place called Secret Garden. You walk down a dark alleyway to stairs that look like they lead to some dingy apartments. Nine flights of stairs later, you get to a door saying “Secret Garden” and on the other side is a beautiful roof top garden restaurant – awesome spot!
We had an awesome array of dishes, all Vietnamese, and I think it was the first time in my life where I could share tapas with a group and eat everything, it was so amazing – might not sound like a big deal but, for me, it was.