After leaving behind the Mekong river, we finally arrived to the bustling Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, Vietnam’s largest and fastest growing city. As we had been told, the first thing that struck us was the traffic and the millions of motorbikes. Crossing the street is an adventure by itself, and an adrenaline shot! Waiting for the motorbikes to stop at a pedestrian cross or at the traffic lights is a lost cause, one can grow old… Our tactic: Breathe in deeply, start walking slowly but with determination towards the other side and hope for the best! We are still in one piece so I guess we didn’t do that bad.
Leaving aside the crazy traffic, the wide boulevards and the many parks make wandering around the city very enjoyable. The parks are full of locals exercising: walking, running, playing badminton, aerobic… who says that gyms need to be indoors! It specially caught our attention to see many people playing with something they call in Vietnamese “cau”, something similar to the badminton feather shuttlecock. Locals are seriously addicted! They gather in pairs or in groups and pass the cau from one to another by kicking it with their foot as if it was a football. We couldn’t resist buying one of them, and after playing with it we understood why they are so addicted. Isma got the hang of it very quickly but I’m afraid I’m going to need a bit more practice…
Once in Vietnam, and specially in a city like Ho Chi Minh city, it’s impossible not to look back to the country’s recent history and specifically to the war that kept its people flighting with each other for over 20 years. From 1956 to 1975 South Vietnam fought against North Vietnam with aid mainly from the US, trying unsuccessfully to stop the extension of the communism. It was then, during the Vietnam War, when Saigon became the centre of the US base and where the GIs came to have fun when on leave from duty. In 1975, after the end of the war, and after the country’s reunification, Saigon was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the leader of North Vietnam.
One of the many reminders of the war is the War Remnants Museum. The museum hosts various exhibits covering in detail what happened in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975 and it also has some US military hardware on display outside the building. The dreadful facts about the war (number of casualties, number of bombs and land mines, money spent by the US), the pictures of the killings and tortures, the newspaper articles from the time… it all gave us a very good overview of what happened in Vietnam during those years. It was specially upsetting and perturbing the exhibit showing the effects of the chemical defoliation carried out by the US, specially with the use of Agent Orange. The use of this chemical agent affected over 3 million people and what is worse, its effects will last for several generations. Both of us were familiar with Vietnam’s war, but shamefully little we knew about it aside what we had seen on Hollywood movies. And, although the visit to the museum is somehow disturbing, for us it was eye opening. How can humans be so cruel with each other just for the shake of political or economical interests?
While in Ho Chi Minh city we did a trip out to the famous Cu Chi tunnels, just 60 km outside the city. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a complex network of connected tunnels built by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war. This intricate network of tunnels was set in the deep forest and expanded over 250 km, it run from Saigon to the border with Cambodia and even crossed under an American base. The tunnels served as living quarters, scape routes, hospitals, communication and supply routes during the war, and they played an important role in the Viet Cong victory over the Americans. We didn’t dismiss the opportunity and we entered one of the tunnels. 5 minutes of squat walking through the dark and claustrophobic tunnels and we were ready to leave. I can’t imagine how the Viet Cong was able to stay for weeks in the tunnels! Above the ground, there is a shooting range where visitors can buy bullets and shoot war machinery like M16 or AK46. While walking around the complex in the deep forest the sound of the shoots makes you travel back to the war years…very creepy.
One of the downsides of traveling in Vietnam is the dual pricing, specially in touristy cities like Ho Chi Minh City. Many shops, restaurants and food stalls have one price for the locals and another one, of course a pricier one, for the tourists. We were surprised to see that this strategy was even followed at an international clinic (I caught a stomach bug) where the consultation fee for non Vietnamese was 2 times more of what a local pays. Ridiculous!!
As we had decided to process our Chinese visa in Ho Chi Minh City, we were somehow forced to stay in Saigon for a week. Though it was a bit inconvenient at first, it gave us the opportunity to relax, soak up and enjoy Saigon’s lifestyle! We had time to visit Notre Dame cathedral and Jade Emperor pagoda, to try a different local speciality at Ben Thanh market every day, to go to the museums, to play cau with locals… The best part of the day was when we sat at one of the many street stalls and like the locals watched the life go by while sipping a Ca Phe Da.
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Giang Son Hotel 2 – Nice hotel set in a quiet little lane in the touristy De Tham area. It’s within walking distance to the main attractions. The hotel is fairly new and it is spotless clean. Our room, though small (we had to play tetris with our backpacks and furniture) was well designed and functional. We had attached bathroom with hot shower, fridge and satellite TV. There is free wifi and breakfast was complimentary (bread, choice of fried eggs or butter & jam, bananas, coffee, juice). The staff is friendly but not very accommodating. We paid 336,000 dongs per night. Note. Prices through Agoda are more expensive than if booked directly with them.
From Vinh Long to Ho Chi Minh City by bus (4h) – We took a minibus at Vinh Long Bus station (they run every hour). The bus stopped many times along the way either to pick up or to drop people. We paid 90,000 dongs per person. We were dropped off in Cholon (Chinatown area, district 5) in Ho Chi Minh city, and from there we took a taxi to De Tham area (70,000 dongs).
Sunrise Travel Vietnam
We booked our trip to Cu Chi Tunnels with Sunrise Travel, the same agency we used to arrange our Chinese Visa. We paid 80,000 dongs for the tour which included a/c bus, bottle of water and guide (didn’t include the entrance fee). The price for a similar tour at our hotel was 126,000 dongs, and we came to know that the tour was the same as we picked up people from our hotel. The only downsides were the time wasted picking up people from other hotels and that, as with any tours, you don’t have much time at the tunnels.