Cambodia complete, it was time to move on to the next leg of my Asian adventure, traversing Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh city up to Hanoi. For the most part I had booked a tour with Stray Asia, a travel company that offers hop-on hop-off guided tours throughout South East Asia. But I had a few days to kill before starting the tour and, luckily, had managed to convince Niki to come and hang with me in Ho Chi Minh for a few days. Unfortunately, the weather in Ho Chi Minh was a sign of what was to come for the majority of my time in Vietnam, a little sun dispersed with cloud and lots of threats of rain. But at this point I was confident the weather was just a fluke and, undaunted, we set off into the city. Cambodia, and most of the cities I’d been in in Australia had lulled me into the habit of wandering lazily around nicely planned, compact cities, (or at least places that were so small it was hard to go wildly off track) so being faced with the hustle and sheer size of Ho Chi Minh was more than just a shock. And I can tell you, anyone who visits the city and says the traffic is crazy is not lying. People in Cambodia had a very lax approach to the laws of the road, but Vietnam is on a whole different level. I spent three days in Ho Chi Minh and still didn’t manage to get used to bikes driving on the pavement to avoid traffic and, sometimes, just casually driving into shops. It’s a lot to adjust to! Ant it’s not just Ho Chi Minh. Across pretty much the whole country people drive like maniacs, not caring which side of the road they are on or whether or not there are any lights. We had more than a couple of near misses with our bus and various other vehicles on the journey up the country, and I cannot imagine having the nerve to hire a scooter and drive myself around these roads, trying to cross them without dying is challenge enough. So, as you can imagine, I was pretty impressed with my ability to survive the chaos of the city. Although, saying that, I’ve still got a week or so in Vietnam (at the time of writing) so whether I’ll make it to my flight or not is another thing altogether!
Anyway, the fact that Ho Chi Minh is in no way centrally planned meant that we didn’t actually manage to see that much of it in our two days (and it didn’t help that I had an incident with my camera, necessitating a four hour search for a Sony shop on day two). What we did manage to do, in our two days, was eat . I’m not even sure I can remember everything we ate, although there was more than one Banh Mi in there, a trip to a fancy French restaurant and the greatest noodle dish I have ever eaten in my life – Bún thịt nướng (seriously, look it up, it’s immense). Between all the eating we did manage to see a few things, and on our first day trekked over to the Reunification Palace. Built in the 1960s (and in true ’60s style) the palace was originally the residence of President Diem, the American backed leader of South Vietnam. When the North won the war in 1975 Viet Cong tanks crashed through the gates, officially toppling the Southern government, and the building has remained largely unchanged since. Well, not entirely unchanged, as we discovered some very 21st century looking perfumes in the president’s bedroom, but it’s a fascinating place to visit, with its garish ’70s decor and the truly retro communications equipment in the bunker. The reunification palace was also my first chance to see history from a truly non-western perspective, and this is a theme that’s continued throughout my time in Vietnam. Every historical monument and site you visit you remember that American lost the war and the Vietnamese people, by and large, are proud of the victory of the communists, and see them as a liberation from centuries of invasion, oppression and colonialism. I can’t say they’re entirely wrong, but seeing the largely rural lifestyle across much of Vietnam, and the obvious divide between the very rich and the very poor in the cities does make you wonder just how much the Vietnamese people have benefitted from the communist victory in 1975.
The day after Niki left I visited the War Remnants Museum, another fascinating example of history from a non-western perspective. A trip to the museum is a very heavy few hours, the majority of the exhibits focus on the effects of Agent Orange on the country’s population and the nitty gritty details of the 14 year long conflict. One of the most powerful exhibits takes up three quarters of a floor and details the war photographers who documented the conflict. It’s very hard to look at and take in most of the photographs and accompanying plaques, as they detail the horrors of war and, in many cases, display the last pictures taken by photographers from across the globe. But the way the exhibits blossom into a full and unrelenting picture of the war, and the importance of each individual photographers work in changing the global perception of what was going on in Vietnam is incredibly powerful and important. I very much doubt you’d find an exhibition like this in a Western country.
I’d love to say that Niki and I did loads more in our two days but, actually, besides wandering miles through the city, eating a lot, visiting the palace and unsuccessfully trying to hunt down a Sony shop we barely managed to fit anything else in. The only other thing we managed was a trip to the Water Puppet Show at the Golden Dragon Theatre. Water puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling in Vietnam, and both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city put on traditional style shows for the tourists. Traditional music and Vietnamese narration accompany the intricately designed puppets, who appear in the middle of a lake on the stage to act out different aspects of ancient life in Vietnam. It’s impossible to follow the spoken stories, as they’re all in Vietnamese, but the actions of the puppets are so elaborate and detailed it would be pretty hard to not understand what was going on in each section. I’m pretty sure the shows are designed for children, but I loved it and could’ve sat there for twice as long watching puppet people try and stop puppet foxes from stealing puppet ducks, and puppet dragons dance in the water. I also learnt that the eastern unicorn is nothing like the western unicorn. Rather than being a horse with a horn it’s a combination between a lion, a dragon and a a sea monster, and normally has two horns, or none at all.
After all this activity, and a nice dose of food induced illness (which, painfully, followed me up to Dalat) my time in Ho Chi Minh city was done. It was far bigger than I was expecting, but about as crazy as I thought it would be, and after this initial taste I was excited to see what the rest of Vietnam had in store. One last thing before I go, that I don’t want to forget about by the time I get to my next post. I’ve already talked about Vietnamese food and how much I love all the noodles and the sandwiches, and I really do. There will definitely be more about the things I ate and drank in Vietnam before we’re done. However, something that I have not been able to get overland still surprises me every time I encounter it, is how much the Vietnamese (and actually the Cambodians too) love sugar. Sweet bread in Cambodia was almost a given, but I was more than a little disappointed to have this continue in the famously French influenced streets of Vietnam. I have also endured sweet noodles, tea with condensed milk (ugh!) and, weirdest of all, sweet cheese puffs. When will this madness end?!
Leah Out X
P.S I keep meaning to include, and yet constantly forget, that you can follow all my adventures, in slightly more real-time, on Instagram