It’s dusk amidst the traffic chaos of downtown Saigon. The trick to crossing a road is not to wait for a gap in the traffic (you’d die of old age first) but to slowly and steadily start walking out. Forget everything you’ve been taught about road safety, including those campaigns with the hedgehogs. Mr Spiky would be a goner in Ho Chi Minh City…
After nine months in Australia and three weeks in New Zealand, it was time to venture out of the first world for the first time. We hit up Bangkok and Koh Chang in Thailand before heading off to Cambodia to see Koh Kong, Koh Rong, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, the Temples of Angkor, the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison.
We were up at 5:30 in Phnom Penh for our pickup which was around 40 minutes late but still got us to our Mekong Express bus on time. We got off at the Vietnamese border and got our passport stamped out by Cambodia and our Cambodian departure visas removed from our passports. We were then back on the bus for under a minute before getting our Vietnamese stamps and like when entering Cambodia we scanned our palms and thumb prints.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) shortly after 1pm and our first experience of Vietnam was a strange one. Our bus guide refused to show us where we were on our map as he said ‘the taxi drivers will hit me’. He kept repeating this whilst holding up his fist. He offered to show us on a map over the road in his office but we were hot and frustrated so walked off to find out ourselves. I instantly felt sorry for him – clearly he was trying to be diplomatic whilst surrounded by irate taxi drivers who rely on clueless tourists not being informed for their business. They would have been thinking he was taking our business away from him. Security on the streets is not a global right and is certainly something we have taken for granted.
The streets were busier, more hectic and the people accosting us to buy taxi rides, sunglasses etc were louder and more frequent than in Cambodia, something I hadn’t thought possible. Within minutes, though, we had located our hostel, the Vinh Hostel Guesthouse, which seemed pleasant. Here we left our passports at reception for the length of our stay (as we had at Thai and Cambodian hostels) and also left our key at reception whenever we left.
Earlier in the week at the Temples of Angkor, a young girl selling fruit had run up to Jodes yelling ‘pineapple, lady! Pineapple, lady!’ She clearly was offering her pineapple but it sounded for all the world like she had just designated Jodie a new fruit-themed superhero name. In Saigon we had dinner at a place called Zoom! where Pineapple Lady Jodie’s food was served… in a pineapple! You couldn’t have scripted it any better…
We watched Top Gear Vietnam that night as we were hoping to take the same route they did in 2008, but first there was the rest of Saigon to explore. the following morning we got up at 8am for a free omelette breakfast round the corner. We walked into town amidst bewildering, overwhelming traffic. Police and traffic marshals dressed in green helped escort us at a couple of the busier junctions. We wandered through a bit of the Ben Thanh Market and then all the way to the War Remnants Museum. It was only 15000 dong to get in, which equates to a measly 75 U.S. cents, more or less.
There was an impressive display in the courtyard of US tanks, airplanes and guns from the Vietnam War/U.S. War/Second IndoChina War or whatever you want to call it. Inside were three stories of fascinating displays about the war, mainly focussing on the illegality and immorality of America’s involvement. Particularly harrowing is the Agent Orange exhibition on the people physically and mentally deformed by the horrific chemical used to destroy forests by the U.S.
Equally stupid was their decision to carpet bomb Vietnam and Cambodia with mines which still kill innocent land workers and tourist who stumble across lesser trodden paths today. It’s as if nobody involved gave any thought to consequences beyond the war. It’s quite infuriating the way these things happen. In 1945, France, having surrendered to Nazi Germany and been rescued by the Allies, decided they had the right to start a war with Vietnam to take back the land they owned for 1000 years. Of course, the Vietnamese were perfectly happy without such interference, thank you very much. Yes, French and Spanish cathedrals are common in South Vietnam but really European colonisation should not have been going on months after World War II.
The Vietnamese are a proud and stubborn bunch show ill never give up defending their land, as the U.S. found out when it took over from France to fight ‘the dangerous spread of Communism’ thinking this would just be another Korean War. The Americans had no clue what they ere getting themselves into and eventually lost when Saigon fell in 1975. The city was subsequently renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the North Vietnamese after their recently passed leader, who was commonly known as Uncle Ho.
The photographers’ exhibition was an excellent record of the war itself as well as the bravery of the photographers involved.
We walked down Le Duan to Duc Ba Cathedral and the Central Post office while we waited for the Re-Unification Palace to open. The park by Le Duan was a pleasant escape from the surrounding madness of Saigon. Seriously, there were more motorbikes in HCMC than I’ve seen in my life. The traffic was truly insane and the junctions made no sense to the uninitiated. There were no Thai tuk-tuks or Cambodian remarks, just motorbikes with riders constantly offering us lifts. Cyclos were also common – imagine a motorbike with a big chair to lie in on the back. The only way through all this traffic was to just walk out in front of it and let them swerve either side of us. It was so dangerous that reaching the other side of the road always felt like an achievement.
There were no ice cream vans but instead ice cream bikes that played a similar tune. Other bikes selling stuff had speakers jabbering away some recorded Vietnamese message on a loop so you could never quite tell where the voice was coming from…
We walked up to the Re-Unification Palace, which I’ll discuss in my next blog.