A Hectic Welcome to Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City
We had been warned that our arrival into Vietnam via Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) would feel overwhelming after the slow pace of Kep and Kampot. In fact, the manager of our hotel even suggested that when we get off the bus in the city it would be easier to walk with two large backpacks instead of getting caught up in the scams of the moto taxis vying for your attention. Luckily it was just a short walk from the bus stop to our hotel but with no real sidewalks and swerving drivers it was certainly an experience.
After dropping off our bags I wanted to get started right away on my hunt for the best bahn mi in Vietnam and we set off to hunt for a bahn mi stall that one of my favorite food/travel bloggers, Mark Wiens from Migrationology had written about. A bahn mi is a delicious Vietnamese sandwich on a short loaf of freshly baked French bread usually with pickled vegetables, cucumber, fresh herbs, mayo, chilies and some sort of pate or meat. Hidden down a narrow alley, Bahn Mi 37 is a small food cart extremely popular with locals and visitors alike and serves a delicious bahn mi with little meat patties roasted over a charcoal grill. Big slices of cucumber add a great crunch along with fresh cilantro and a sweet and spicy chili sauce drizzled over the top.
After securing our delicious sandwiches we headed over to a park near our hotel to sit and enjoy them and watch the locals emerge for their daily fitness in the park. The Vietnamese people very much dislike being in the sun, both because of the heat and their desire for fair skin. Sometimes in smaller towns the streets can seem abandoned during the middle of the day while overcrowded and bustling in the early mornings and evenings after the sun starts to go down. It’s an interesting phenomenon we’ve come to enjoy since being in Vietnam, but still find it hard to believe that they would rather wear pants, a sweatshirt, a scarf, mask and hat during the heat of the day in order to avoid the sun at all costs!
Just after finishing our sandwiches we were approached by four students attending a local university who asked if they could practice their conversational English with us. We’d heard of other travelers who said this was a common occurrence in Vietnam so we were excited that we’d be able to participate and help the students out. We told them about our travels through Oceania and Asia, about our lives both in the States and traveling. They told us about their studies or daily lives, one even was in logistics, Jeremy’s old industry. What was great too was they gave us a little cheat sheet with some Vietnamese words we might often need to use. I’ve made it a goal of mine to learn how to say “thank you,” in each country’s language as soon as arriving so was excited to have some local help!
The students suggested we should check out the local night market a couple of blocks away so we said our goodbyes and were on our way. The night market was actually pretty small and we seem to have arrived at an odd hour, right when the stands were still setting up, but the larger market nearby had already closed for the night. So we took a brief tour of the stalls that were open before heading back to our hotel for an early night. There was a lot of sightseeing I wanted to check off our list the next day!
Saigon is actually filled with a rich history about the Vietnam-American war and was one of the cities that I seemed to learn more American history exploring museums and sights than my days in a classroom. Before visiting Independence Palace, we set out to see some of Saigon’s architectural masterpieces. Mainly the Norte Dame Cathedral, a smaller version of the one in Paris, the Opera House, and the Post Office.
We were definitely able to observe the French influence in the architecture that seems to permeate most of the city. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Independence Palace. Independence Palace, otherwise known as Reunification Palace was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It also marked the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon when a tank crashed through its gates on April 30, 1975. The palace was designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu and has a beautiful open floorplan and each of the rooms in the palace gives you a glimpse into to a bit of history regarding the Vietnam War. I have to admit that other than a short unit in history back in high school, along with reading several books (both non-fiction and fiction), my knowledge of the history of the Vietnam-American War was not very good so our visit to Saigon was quite enlightening on a number of levels.
Later in the evening we decided to explore Bui Vien street, the backpacker area near our hotel and grab some cheap beers and dinner from a place a fellow travel blogger had recommended. Halfway through dinner and drinks I started to feel not so hot, so we headed back to the hotel for what would be a very long night for me. Whatever food illness had struck Jeremy two days prior had now made it through my system. I kept both of us up all night with frequent trips to the bathroom and we were both disappointed to find that apparently Gatorade and ginger ale doesn’t really exist in Vietnam.
I was super disappointed that I would have to miss the tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels we had booked the day before, but Jeremy said he’d report back for me. "Jeremy Here, Oh Hey!" The tour was led by two very knowledgeable guides who explained what we’d be doing that day and were very excited that President Obama was in Hanoi at that current time. It continued to fascinate Stephanie and I how after all the US put Vietnam through back during the war, the people today still admire and strive to be like the US. Their ability to forgive and not hold grudges to the later generations is a testament to their culture and hearts. It was also humorous listening to the guides because they spoke in English and what became evident while they spoke, was they were really throwing in a fake southern accent into their speech. You would’ve thought they were raised in Vietnam but had an uncle from Texas who lived in their home or something. Going back to their admiration for the American style of life, they went onto to say how they love American movies and I think this had an impact on their style of talking. I found it all pretty funny.
Before reaching the tunnels we had a quick stop at a gallery of sorts. Here there are many skilled artists who in one way or another have been impacted by the atrocities of the war. Some lost a limb, others were born after the war but suffered deformities from the chemicals used back when. These individuals have pushed on and now create some really beautiful pieces, ranging from vases, paintings and more. The artists were hard at work while we walked through and there were hundreds of pieces of unique art for sale.
Shortly after, we arrived at the tunnels located in the jungle. The tunnels were used as a way to move throughout the city and other areas of Vietnam underground without being detected during the war. On the tour our guide took us around to the many stations set up above ground that displayed how people would build fake drop floors, booby trapped windows, and other dangerous traps to hurt the enemy. There were also patches of grass that appeared normal and we were then shown how in fact they could be lifted up so one could quickly sneak underground to hide. One could easily see how the war must have been so maddening for the soldiers involved.
Lastly we crouched and ducked as we explored some of the tunnels. They were extremely tight fits both in height and claustrophobic in width. The fact that people lived down here for days and weeks on end is mind boggling. In the end the tunnels and displays were an interesting attraction to see and just another reminder of the craziness that ensued and resulted from the war. (J-Lev Out)
When Jeremy returned around 2:00pm I had finally gathered back some of my strength and was determined to meet him at the War Remnants Museum. I’m so glad I mustered the strength to go because the experience was definitely eye opening.
While I’m aware that there are casualties in every war, the amount of innocent civilians, men, women and children that were killed by American troops was atrocious. It felt a bit odd celebrating America’s Memorial Day this year overseas in Vietnam, when a few days prior I’d spent an hour at an exhibit on Agent Orange and the damage it caused (and continues to cause) to so many innocent people in this country. I have several good friends whose husbands are currently serving in different branches of the military and I’m grateful every day that they spend their lives protecting our freedom, but I couldn’t help but be ashamed how we’ve treated Vietnam in the past.
So far we’ve received nothing but kindness from the Vietnamese people. People are eager to learn our language, share a drink with us, and continually try and help us out whenever we look confused (which is often). After a warm (albeit traffic-heavy) welcome, we were looking forward to spending the next three weeks working our way up the east coast of Vietnam enjoying delicious food and getting to know more of Vietnam’s kind people.