Good Morning Vietnam
After a fairly comfortable 6 hour bus journey and an easy crossing at the Cambodia/Vietnam border we arrived in Vietnam’s largest city Saigon, shortly after 2:30pm (yes I know it is officially called Ho Chi Minh City but along with most travelers and locals I prefer to refer to it as Saigon). To our pleasant surprise the bus dropped us off literally meters away from our guesthouse in the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao. After a speedy check in we decided not to waste any time and head straight out to explore the bustling, hectic city. Contrary to our familiar pattern we actually had a busy couple of days planned in the city so we had little time to wander around and explore at our own pace.
Since this was going to be our only full free afternoon we decided to go check out the War Remnants Museum which closes at 5pm. Amidst the insane motorcycle and car traffic our taxi made good time to the museum leaving us with a couple of hours to explore. At the time we arrived the museum was incredibly busy. At times it felt quite claustrophobic as people tend to move in groups and crowd around small displays. It also did not help that there were several of those “I need to take a photo of everything” tourists around… seriously who really needs a photo of every single display so badly so as to shove you out of the way and get in front for a better angle? Are they going to post every single one on Facebook? Actually, I think I’ve figured it out… maybe they want to open up their own museum in their basement, yes that’s it. Sigh.
Once the crowds began to disperse the museum was actually quite good and fairly interesting. You got to see the war from the Vietnamese perspective, and not surprisingly they spared no punches when referring to the American aggression and war tactics. A lot of anti American sentiment was present. Not surprising since the museum used to be called The Museum of American War Crimes. The saddest and by far the most horrific exhibition was the one about the chemical weapon Agent Orange. The exhibition showed images of a large number of people suffering deformities and birth defects as a result of the use of this chemical weapon by the Americans during the Vietnam War. The museum also touched on some positive stuff like the anti-war rallies that took place around the world and on the success in rebuilding Vietnam in the post war years. Outside the museum they had Chinook Helicopter on display. I was quite pleased to see it as it reminded me of playing “Command and Conquer” in my childhood days. It was so much bigger than I expected!
After leaving the museum we decided to walk back to our guesthouse. Along the way we stopped at the central market which surprise, surprise, sold the exact same things as nearly every other market we have visited in this region. As I was hungry and getting a bit grumpy we didn’t stay long at the market and continued on our way back to Pham Ngu Lao. The only obstacle keeping me away from delicious Pho (Vietnamese Noodle Soup) was one of the biggest and busiest roundabouts in Saigon. We needed to cross it and there were no traffic lights, only hundreds of motorbikes and a mixture of busses, taxis and cars. There was a crosswalk and the way you are supposed to cross the street was to wait for a small break in traffic, start walking and with blind faith, and hope that nobody will hit you. There is an art to this as you are expected to walk slowly and assertively. If you panic and run or stop it will throw the drivers off and they will not be able to predict your trajectory. It is quite amazing to watch how the motorbikes seamlessly weave in and out of traffic and avoid everything! When it was our turn to cross we stood beside an older local lady and followed her lead. It was exciting and scary but we managed to cross in one piece.
The next day we booked a one day Mekong Delta tour, and unfortunately our experience really confirmed our hatred for tours and anything tour related. We were picked up at 730am and herded to a bus where we were joined by another 35 people on a 3 hour drive to the Mekong Delta. The drive was long and mostly uninteresting. The tour guide tried his hardest to be informative and funny but frankly he was more repetitive and annoying than anything else. When we arrived at the port town we boarded a boat and were taken along the Mekong to a ‘floating market’. The market was pretty cool but it was very small. According to the guide, if we would have done the 2 day tour we would have seen the bigger and more impressive market. Next we were taken to a honey, coconut cake, and rice wine factory, or should I say tourist shop. It really bugs me when tour guides bring you to a shop or a ‘factory’ in this case and basically try to get you to buy the overpriced goods. We just took our free samples and said thank you very much. I did manage to try snake wine and yes it tastes as gross as it sounds.
Next we headed deeper into the Mekong Delta and disembarked near a small village where we cycled to a restaurant for our lunch. Lunch was included in the tour, but our guide said that everyone should try the local Mekong Elephant Ear Fish (for a substantial fee of course) again with the upselling! Not being tempted at all we just had the regular uninspiring lunch. The highlight of the tour happened after lunch when we had a chance to be rowed down a small artery of the Mekong in a rowboat. Kendall referred to this as her ‘Apocalypse Now’ moment. It was very peaceful and relaxing. Once back to the bigger boat we headed back to the port town, boarded our bus and after another 3 hour ride we arrived back in Saigon at 7pm. Finally our full day of being herded around was at an end. It was time to find some beer.
The next day we had to be up early again for our next activity, visiting the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels are located around 1.5 hours away from Saigon and are a part of a large network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. One of the only ways of visiting the tunnels is to unfortunately take a tour. Luckily for us this time around the tour guide was fairly good and informative, however maybe a bit too informative at times. It was pretty nice walking around the tunnel complex and getting a feel for what the environment was like during the Vietnam War. At one point our guide stopped by a tree, randomly cleared some leaves from the ground to expose this tiny trap entrance to the tunnel system. It looked so small but somehow we managed to go down and actually fit through the tiny entrance. It is pretty insane to imagine that the area is littered with several of these little hidden entrances. The Viet Cong soldiers could have sprung up anytime and anywhere! Later on we got to try to actually head into one stretch of the tunnels. It was very claustrophobic and it got hard to breath at some points. I couldn’t imagine staying in the tunnels for more than a few minutes so we quickly got out.
We were back in Saigon at around 3pm and just like the other evenings we found a place to eat and have a few cheap (50 cent) beers and for Kendall watermelon shakes. I wish we had had a bit more time to explore other aspects of the city as three nights didn’t quite feel like enough.