Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon, is located in the south of Vietnam. Lou had no real reason or intention for coming here other than because I wanted to. And why did I want to come to Vietnam? The episode of Top Gear I had watched some 8 years prior still filled my head with imagery of what a beautiful country Vietnam must be – I loved watching the presenters fool around on bikes whilst creating a very memorable road trip. Unlike Lou, who will research a destination, chat to Airbnb hosts and check out activities, I decided to provide some counterbalance. I did nothing. We would just turn up and figure it all out in true Top Gear style.
Due to a couple of delays on connecting flights we didn’t arrive until about 1am – 3hrs behind schedule. However, our flight, despite turbulence and a very relaxed pilot, was quite entertaining. There were times when it sounded like he had awoken from a nap to deliver a sleepy eyed flight update. I had the middle row seat and we were joined by a tall businessman in the isle seat next to me. After a couple of quips about height and airplanes we got chatting.
Peter, a Finnish businessman worked for a trading company with offices in Ho Chi Minh city. In his early 50’s and with a strong grasp of English he spent the 3hr flight reciting stories of his past travels, businesses and home life in Finland. As the self proclaimed Forrest Gump of Finland, Peter had enjoyed several different careers and amassed plenty of tales – he was great fun to chat with. I got his email address and we met him later that week for dinner and more of the same. With less turbulence and infinitely better food.
For anyone that has not been to Vietnam and specifically Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh, the visa process is quite strange. Despite having pre applied for the visa (there are a number of options for stays between 1 – 3 months) we still had to spend some time waiting at the “Landing Visa’s” section of the airport just before the passport check desks. The assistant there will take your passport, visa paperwork and two passport photos to process. I found myself almost thankful that our flight was delayed as the desk was quiet and the process took about 20 minutes. I could imagine that at busier times this would be a lengthy process and quite frustrating after a long flight.
On our taxi ride to the hotel I found myself wishing I had a better grasp of languages. In grammar school (age 11 – 16) we were taught French with additional options for Latin and German. Unfortunately I missed some of the first classes in French due to sickness and I never caught up. From there I never really got into learning languages, and as an English speaker, I am pretty lazy with languages in foreign countries, preferring to say the same message but louder and with hand signals until I am understood – what a wanker! I can see how this portrays a sense of the lazy tourist and the more I time I spend abroad the less I like this about myself. Vietnamese can sound like quite an aggressive language, similar to Mandarin but with a different tone. Sadly, I can’t communicate in either, something I should commit to changing, if not here then as we travel. I was lucky in the Philippines that so many people there speak English – there are so many dialects of Tagalog that English has become the main second language. I know I can’t speak every language but I need to make the effort to try harder when it comes to basic communication in foreign countries.
Upon our first exploration on the streets of Ho Chi Minh I immediately found myself feeling more like I was in Asia in comparison to the Philippines. I feel like there is a more predominant Chinese influence. The streets are alive and bustling with less obvious poverty than I witnessed in the Philippines, although I acknowledge it probably exists somewhere. Some of the architecture and culture here is influenced by the French colonial style which adds a certain charm that probably doesn’t exist in other parts of Asia. I felt more at home when I discovered how many coffee shops are here and how good the internet is! Small boutique coffee shops were a staple of Sydney life but Vietnam does coffee shops on a different scale, they are everywhere. The Vietnamese seem to prefer a sweeter coffee with condensed milk but they cater to all and there regular coffees are fantastic too – a few places were even able to prepare flat whites!
Vietnamese food is amazing! We love it. The French influence does come across, Lou and myself ate at a fantastic restaurant near the Bitexco Tower (apparently the influence behind Tony Starks residence in the last Avengers film). Street food is where you want to be though, there are so many vendors and I’ve become a fan of the ‘banh mi’ – crunchy bread rolls with some form of pork, pate, cucumber and spicy sauce. A lot of street vendors use plastic furniture that is designed for children to create their outdoor dining areas. I ate quite a few meals with my knees around my ears – on one occasion the seat gradually collapsed below me as I tried to stand up making for a slightly embarrassing slow death on the pavement. It didn’t deter me though. The other benefit of street food is that it’s generally so cheap, the two of us could eat a meal for around $5USD.
The city also provided my first proper introduction to bubble tea, or boba tea as it is referred to. Lou is a huge fan of boba tea and her face lights up anytime she goes near the stuff, thanks in part to the quality here versus the states and Australia (and partly thanks to the heady sugar high it produces!). I had tried a boba tea in Australia but it wasn’t great. The milk tea is generally black or green and then combined with milk, then a fruit syrup before adding all the goodies – jellies and tapioca pearls a in a variety of flavors, some with fruit fillings that Lou calls popping boba. Lou particularly loved Hot’n’Cold because of the thousands of combinations you could create with milk tea and jelly flavors. The drinks are sugar loaded but taste great and I’m always happy to take some from Lou every time she emerges from a counter with a colorful cup of the stuff. For Boba tea in Ho Chi Minh, there are a few street vendors, but I’d recommend Hot’n’Cold if you want a cup the size of a children’s beach bucket!
We spent our first couple of weeks at two hotels in District 1 of the city. The area tends to be the main tourist fare for the city and contains some of the national buildings, monuments and museums along with the Ben Thanh markets and the backpacker streets that are jam packed with hostels, bars, cafes and tour shops. I enjoyed heading more towards the north east area of the city which is a bit more relaxed and retains the coffee shop vibe I had grown to like in the Surry Hills area of Sydney.
One day I wanted to venture to the war museum. It is harrowing. I grew up after the Vietnam war and although we may have covered it in history I don’t really remember anything about it. Let’s be honest, language and history weren’t my strong subjects. Not setting myself up well for world travel! Educational deficiencies aside, some argue the museum is just home to Vietnamese propaganda but I think it paints a realistic image of war, in particular this war. The tragedies that the Vietnamese people suffered were disgusting, the US treated the country like a testing ground for napalm and toxic gases. Dioxin, aka Agent Orange was used widely to destroy crops, forests and people in Vietnam. The long term effects of Agent Orange created many defects in children over the last forty years. Lou was visibly affected by what we witnessed in the museum and although we came away having learned a great deal, we had great sorrow for the sufferings of the Vietnamese people.
I think the Vietnam war really highlighted how a war affects people and the aftermath of such destruction. Being English I’m sure I’d feel the same if our wars were more recent, I’m just fortunate that time has been a great healer and the UK isn’t the power it once was. That and we weren’t in a museum in Afghanistan or Iraq. It did also turn our attention to the current conflicts and what the landscape in Europe will look like given the huge influx of Syrian refugees whilst we have been living abroad. Whatever countries and people are involved war is a sad result of the various power battles around the world and it really affected us to be so exposed to the aftermath of destruction.
After our trip to the war museum we decided to give the Cu Chi tunnels a miss. Whilst it might have been fascinating to see how the Viet Cong lived underground during the conflict, the idea of trying to fit in the tunnels or fire AK-47’s didn’t really appeal to us – we saw a few pictures of people half submerged in the tunnels, smiling for selfies and decided it wasn’t for us. We decided to focus on the vibrancy of the city and exploring more of the city itself.
Keep an eye out for Part.2 of Ho Chi Minh city!