Following the episode with the stolen phone, we were pretty much ready to leave Cambodia and start afresh in Vietnam. Whilst we haven’t allowed this one incident to impair our judgement of the whole city, it certainly left a bad taste and made it hard for us to really enjoy the remainder of our time in phnom Penh.
I visited Ho Chi Minh city ten years ago so I’m keen to see how it’s changed. Rather than tackle the land border crossing, we took a quick night flight and grabbed a taxi to our apartment. Slight concern set in as we pulled into a quiet dark alley in the pitch black and stopped outside a boarded up apartment front. It was 11pm by this time, with no one outside, a locked up metal gate and a taxi driver eager to be paid and get away.
Visions of having to traipse the streets of Saigon to find alternative digs crossed my mind but thankfully a quick call to the owner was made and we weren’t stranded for too long.
We spent the first day in Ho Chi Minh city sorting out a new phone for Gary. Whilst he was setting it up, I slipped off for a cheeky foot massage which was incredible. I’m always slightly confused about correct massage etiquette and it tends to change from place to place. I was especially unsure when shown round the back of this place into a very dark room and given a pair of Pyjama shorts to change into. I thought they were just touching my feet. Turns out that it’s customary in Vietnam to give a head massage and full leg rubdown before they get to the feet. I think I feel asleep half way through it was so good.
Over the course of the next couple of days we explored the city on foot which gave us a real taster of Ho Chi Minh. We really enjoyed wandering through the parks and green spaces of which there are a few. It was great to see the locals making use of the free exercise equipment. We loved the bustling streets and looking at the wonderful architecture that has such a French influence, including the post office which was designed by Gustav Eiffel and the Notre Dame cathedral. There were wonderful colonial buildings with beautiful windows and shutters. Some of these grand old buildings show their age with peeling paint and crumbling corners but others have been restored to their former beauty and elegance.
I’m sure it’s just a hangover from Phnom Penh, but we were much more cautious with getting phones and cameras out on busy roads, but generally the city felt pretty safe.
The traffic in Ho Chi Minh city is absolutely insane with a never ending stream of motorbikes, taxis and buses trawling the roads. There are seemingly no road safety rules here, as bikes mount the curb to take short cuts and fearlessly weave through oncoming traffic.
The stunts pulled here would instigate the most heinous of road rage wars back home, yet the folk are so tolerant. There is no shouting or beeping when being cut up. Everyone drives relatively slowly and accommodates the craziest of obstacles despite being crammed in. We’ve seen families of four crammed onto one bike and people hauling all manner of curious and bulky items through town. Crossing the road is a horrifying experience I remember from my last trip. You have to accept that there will never be a suitable gap in the traffic. Therefore the trick is to creep and peep, taking small steps at a hideously slow pace in the face of hundreds of bikes coming at you. Hold your nerve until you reach the other side and then high five that you made it. Miraculously this tactic works.
It’s become customary to hit up the local market whenever we get to a new place and Ben Thanh was first on our visit list in Ho Chi Minh city. This is a one stop shop for everything from knock off bags and watches, to fabrics and teas, right through to fruit and live produce including jumping frogs, clucking hens and flapping fish. A real assault on the senses. The prices are over inflated for tourists to bargain down but it’s an exhausting exercise trying to buy anything. We did get some delicious rambutan fruit.
We made our way to the War Remnants museum on our second day which was a very sobering experience. Told from the perspective of the Vietnamese, the museum reports the American actions and assaults during the conflict in the 60’s and 70’s. Unbelievably the war in its entirety lasted 17 years, during which time the US dropped three times more bombs than during World War Two. They also financed an unbelievable amount of weaponry for the French in their grapple to maintain colonial power prior to the war.
The photos taken by journalists at the time of conflict were very interesting and powerful. Without filter they show the brutality of violence against civilians.
There were rooms reporting the widespread use of agent orange, with harrowing photos documenting the devastating affect it had both at the time and generations on. 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to agent orange and the mutations and birth defects shown were horrendous. This uncensored view of war and its long-lasting aftermath is shocking.
To see how long it takes a country to recover from the savages of war, long after the headlines and news footage has faded is shocking. You can’t help but walk away with a sense of the utter waste and pointlessness of war that is driven by greed, money and power.
We walked out in need of a stiff drink and found our way to the roof terrace of the Rex hotel which boasted wonderful views across town as the sun set.