Saigon (Ho Chi Minh)
After 2 flights and a few wasted hours in KL airport we were finally in a new country, Vietnam.
We’d already pre-arranged the authorisation letter for our 3-month visa and filled out the questionnaire so we just needed to go to the main desk and hand over all the paperwork, passports and a photo of ourselves, we were then told to take a seat and wait to be called. It wasn’t that long before we were called to pay $25 each and were given our passports back now complete with a full-page Vietnam visa.
We then made our way through the join the hundreds of people queuing to get through immigration control. On route we spotted a good deal on SIM cards - $10 for 30 days unlimited data! We should have known the deal was too good to be true as what they seem to have done is already registered all their SIMs about 10 days prior and used almost all of the ‘unlimited’ data. Fortunately, we spotted this before getting through immigration and so went back to get a refund, but it wasted quite a lot of time and I wonder how many tourists they get with this scam every day.
Whilst waiting for our taxi at the arrivals drop off I had a delightful car of children that all wanted to chat and have their pictures taken with me, it was a lovely welcome to a new country.
A short taxi ride through the chaotic streets and we arrived at our hotel – Madam Cuc Hotel. We were staying in a normal double room on the 1st floor, it did have a tiny narrow en-suite and aircon but as with lots of other budget places it’s a little tired round the edges and old fashioned. As the day had gone on I’d been gradually feeling more and more queasy and had started getting intensely painful abdominal cramps but the lure of a new city over-rode and as it was getting dark we went out for an explore. The hotel is perfectly located near one end of Bui Vien street which is the main backpacker bar, hostel, cheap eats road. At the weekend one portion of this is closed to traffic but most days it’s a crazy free for all with scooters, food stalls, cars and lots of people. We ate amazing tofu and seafood in Five Oysters not far from the hotel and drank a few bottles of 50p beer before I had to go back to the room.
Sadly, that is where I stayed for 2 more days, but Paul was great and went out to get proper SIM cards, food, drink and medication. Plus we sorted admin stuff, watched crappy TV and finished reading books.
There was a tour operator just down the road called Sinh Tourist, that offered an open bus ticket stopping at all the normal backpacker haunts which was only about £32 each. To book each journey you just had to go to their office in town and put your name down for the following day, it’s great for when you don’t know how long you want to spend in one place as you just work 1 day in advance the whole time. We also booked ourselves another night at Madam Cuc’s, so we’d have a bit more time in the city before moving on.
Nothing prepares you for the traffic in Vietnam and especially in the city, it’s just nuts. There doesn’t seem to be any road rules, so motorbikes go every direction and drive on all the pavements. Cars and buses don’t use indicators and the only warning you have that you might be in their way is getting blasted by their horn, but as they use their horn for everything they might just be saying ‘Hi’.
The small food carts have their own musical jingles or shouted menus which repeat on a loop and again these go every direction and might be hand pushed, pedal power or motorised. Finally, the rest of the road and pavement space is taken up with people…. lots of people all trying to get where they want to go without any thought of anyone else.
We decided by the end of our 4 days here that crossing the road was all about how much confidence you had as you stepped into the road, dither and you don’t make it but stride out with head up and hand out and the traffic tends to go around you.
We took in most of the sights in town by just walking around one day as the main square, Town Hall, Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Opera House are all really close to each other. We also went to the War Remnants museum which is a must visit but it's not an easy one. Most of the 2 floors are media and frontline journalist photos and I had a tough time getting through them but the next couple of sections were on the effects of Agent Orange and that’s when I had to take myself away. Paul managed to get around all of it but the conversation between us didn’t flow until we got well clear of the museum.
During the rest of our days we took grab bikes to different districts and visited Chinese temples and the Emperor Jade Pagoda where the smell of the incense is enough to knock you out. Strolled along the canal, drank coffee in small hidden hipster style bars and ate in a variety of different style restaurants and a night food market.
We even managed to find a hidden Gin Palace and we both indulged in a few gorgeous gin cocktails and infused Gin and Tonics on our final day.
Obviously my overwhelming memory of Ho Chi Minh city, or Saigon as I understand the locals prefer, was not being well enough to really enjoy it but looking back it is quite a cool city. When I first arrived, it hit me as a bit of a shock especially after the laid-back beach life we'd had in Indonesia, but you soon get used to the hustle and bustle, smells and general living conditions and it does grow on you.
We didn't end up with enough time to do the Cu Chi tunnels or the Mekong Delta trips but I don’t feel like I missed out…maybe next time…maybe not.